Coia Subject Of Controversy At Laborers' Convention

John J. Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO, defies a union election offical

and praises Coia in a speech to the delegates.

Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau

Related story:Coia, Laborers celebrate state of union

LAS VEGAS -- AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney refused a direct request by the Laborers' union's election referee when he spoke in support of union president Arthur A. Coia at the convention here Monday.

Election officer Stephen B. Goldberg appointed by the union executive board as part of the union's agreement with the Justice Department to reform election rules, decided that parts of Sweeney's prepared speech to the 2,200-delegate Laborers convention would be impermissible campaigning for Coia's reelection under new union rules requiring secret ballots, equal treatment of candidates and other reforms.

"I edited the speech," said, Goldberg, and asked Sweeney to deliver it without the portion deemed to be an "endorsement" of Coia.

Sweeney refused. He delivered six paragraphs of praise for Coia, of Barrington,calling him "a standup union leader" and acknowledging his personal debt to Coia for helping him win the presidency of the 13.1 million-member labor federation last fall.

The convention -- so far a tightly controlled gathering with Coia presiding -- broke into scattered boos and curses yesterday morning when Goldberg announced his decision.

When Goldberg added that he had awarded five minutes of podium time to remedy the "the significant disadvantage" to Coia's challengers, about half the delegates walked out of the convention hall, partially disrupting the speech by dissident candidate Bernard "Barney" Scanlon.

Goldberg, who was appointed by the union executive board as part of the union's agreement with the Justice Department to reform election rules, stressed that Sweeney triggered the election-rules violation "with absolutely no knowledge of Mr. Coia" or union leadership.

"Be that as it may, Mr. Sweeney, the prestigious president of the AFL-CIO did endorse and campaign for Mr. Coia during an official Convention session," Goldberg said in his decision. "In so doing, he placed the other candidates at a significant disadvantage."

Goldberg put the violation in the category of using "union funds and facilities" to assist one candidate's campaign unfairly. The union paid for Sweeney's trip to Las Vegas. Coia also presented Sweeney with a commemorative set of golf clubs, joking that his last exchange of fancy golf clubs -- with President Clinton -- had sparked controversy.

The union's lawyer appealed Goldberg's ruling, jeopardizing the five-minute speeches for Coia's rivals just hours before the balloting. But a union appeals officer upheld Goldberg shortly before Coia accepted his nomination to a five-year-term, sparking raucous ovations from the convention floor.

Coia played a key role in the final stage of Sweeney's election to the AFL-CIO's presidency last October, boasting at the time that he -- "a local hometown boy from Providence" -- was the kingmaker in organized labor's most important election.

Sweeney has since become a major figure in national politics, launching a $35 million advertising and campaigning blitz against House Republicans.

Sweeney also gave Coia a position he had sought, the chairmanship of the AFL-CIO's new organizing committee.

Union dissidents have seized on these circumstances to conclude that Sweeney's actions Monday were an old-fashioned political payoff. "Trade union elections should be held to a higher standard because they involve the use of members' dues," said Jeff Perry, secretary-treasurer of Mail Handlers Local 30 in New York.

"Coia has repeatedly used union money to suport Sweeney and in return, here Sweeney has come out here at union expense to endorse him," Perry said. "Sweeney's the head of U.S. labor and he should set an example for fair elections and level playing fields."

Sweeney spokesman David Saltz partly rebutted Goldberg in a telephone interview: Sweeney's speech was "pretty standard . . . He didn't say a single word about endorsing any candidate or make any reference to any election."

Saltz did not directly respond to the charge that Sweeney's speech was a political quid pro quo nor answer the question of why Sweeney chose to brush off election officer Goldberg's request.

Union leaders from Coia down have portrayed this week's convention, featuring the first secret balloting in Laborers history, as a key part of the internal reforms that the union began last year to avert a takeover by the government. In a draft racketeering complaint, the government had detailed the Laborers' long history of corruption and charged that Coia was running the union for the benefit of organized crime. Coia has repeatedy denied the charge and supporters, including Sweeney and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, have declared this week that Coia's critics are enemies of labor.

The union adopted election reforms only after the government threatened to exercise its power to scrap the in-house cleanup and take over the union.

The Sweeney episode appeared unlikely to affect the results of balloting that will determine whether Coia has any opposition in this fall's direct, rank-and-file election of its top official -- a first for the Laborers.

After yesterday's walkout, half a house gave scattered catcalls and almost no applause to Coia challenger Barney Scanlon of Long Island, who said in part: "Arthur Coia is claiming credit for this reform. But it's not so." Scanlon instead credited "you brothers and sisters" who have bucked corruption over the years.

Sam DeChristopher delivered a much louder five-minute speech on behalf of Coia's other challenger, fellow Chicagoan Bruno Caruso, in which he blasted the agreement between the union and the government that created the internal reform.

Election officials will announce today whether Scanlon or Caruso won the necessary 5 percent of delegate ballots yesterday to win a place on the fall election ballot with Coia.

"I never heard of either of them until this week," Laborer Paul McNeil of Seattle, a Coia supporter, said of the two challengers.

Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company.
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