Coia wins pay raise as Laborers leader

The union president wraps up a successful convention in Las Vegas, having pushed through an increase in member dues and other measures.

Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau

LAS VEGAS -- Laborers Union general president Arthur A. Coia, bound by a new ethics code to give up income from his Providence law firm, secured a 19 percent raise yesterday - for a new salary of $250,000-a-year in base pay - capping off a union convention that his forces mastered almost completely.

Coia's "Unity Slate" won all 13 slots on his governing board and launched him as a prohibitive favorite this fall in the first secret ballot ever put to the union's 750,000 waste-haulers, construction workers, food processors and municipal employees.

Coia closed the most democratic convention in Laborers' annals with an impassioned defense of the government-monitored anti-corruption reforms he instituted last year - reforms which staved off a federal takeover of the Laborers and kept Coia in office.

"This union was resurrected on Feb. 14, 1995" by the reform agreement with the government. "We formed an alliance to make this union better. It was the right thing to do," said the 53-year-old Rhode Islander.

"Maybe they thought we had the determination to get rid of thecorruption. . . And when the government leaves, we'll still have reform because that's what I believe in," Coia said to loud cheers from the 2,116- delegate convention.

Still, there was bitter dissent at this convention of laser light shows, lavishly produced videos and field trips to the neon gambling palaces of the Las Vegas Strip.

"You fellows are so far separated from the actual conditions of the men working on the job every day," said Bernard "Barney" Scanlon, 70, a Long Island construction worker who failed to make the fall balloting for Coia's job.

"The guy that pulls on his boots in the morning to do the work that results in the salaries that you folks make in Washington has got to work for 10 years to equal the salary that you just voted" for Coia, Scanlon said. "I hesitate to call this unconscionable greed. But I call it unconscionable. . . This is a shame. I object."

Coia declined to defend his pay increase. "I want to talk about training and education," he said in an interview Wednesday.

Coia judged that the "ayes" had it on the string of voice votes - some of which seemed difficult to call - by which his forces pushed through these measures:

New constitutional power for Coia's executive board to raise his pay and benefits anytime, based on "factors deemed appropriate by the board."

A 27-percent hike in monthly dues for members over four years, partly to pay for the anti-corruption operation that Coia created last year that thwarted a government takeover of the mob-tainted union.

The elimination of a $1,500 death benefit to help cover a shortfall in the $8 million fund for a convention. There were few complaints about paying for expensive computers for the first secret ballot in union history. But a significant number of minority delegates who addressed the convention chastised leaders for excessive spending on frills.

The defeat of resolutions that, according to Coia's forces and federal prosecutors here, would gut the union's internal reforms and invite a federal takeover of the Laborers.

As the government had demanded and Coia had promised, the convention was the most democratic in union history.

"At least nobody got hurt. At least none of us got beat up," said Laborer Chris White of Fairbanks, Alaska, who watched a dissident friend beaten for daring to take the microphone at the 1981 convention in Florida - where Coia's father presided.

On the dues question, Coia ordered time for both sides equally divided.

Joseph Virgilio, business manager of Providence municipal workers Local 1033, said international dues "are helping us to fight the employer, and in our case the employers are elected politicians" whose "new weapon is that a raise has got to go to the voters and voters don't want to pay taxes."

Virgilio said, "That's baloney," but added that his bargaining stance would be undermined if the Laborers decided, in effect, not to raise the union's own taxes.

Others agreed with the need for a strong union but saw the dues question in the context of excessive union spending.

Michael J. Cummings of Local 597 in Oshawa, Ontario, said 64 pecent of his construction workers are jobless, relying on food banks and unable to afford the dues hike of $4 over four years, on top of the current $15 per month.

"There's so much waste in this 21st convention. I mean, who needed 50 imitation Elvises prancing around here yesterday morning? I certainly didn't," Cummings said. "The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer" in Laborers.

The union's new ethics code has cost Coia a significant but undisclosed amount of income. He has been a longtime partner in Coia & Lepore, the Providence law firm that frequently handles workers compensation cases from among the thousands of Laborers in two locals there.

In accordance with conflict-of-interest provisions in the union's new ethics code, Coia "recused" himself last January from certain labor-related profits of his law firm, according to William Rice, an ex-FBI man who is top lieutenant in the union's anti-corruption unit.

Is the new raise from Laborers membership a repayment for lost income Coia has incurred by following the rules for ethical conduct?

Howard Gutman, Coia's Washington lawyer declined several times this week to address that question.

"Arthur Coia could double his salary tomorrow by joining a private practice in Providence," Gutman said. Gutman also said the raise makes Coia's pay "comparable" to that of other national union leaders.

Another Coia & Lepore lawyer, New England regional vice president Armand Sabitoni, was reelected to his post without opposition yesterday.

Sabitoni, a close friend of Coia, sounded some of the convention's recurrent themes in his acceptance speech: organizing, job training, safety and "labor-management cooperation."

All in all, even the sourness over the money questions dissipated as the convention moved toward its festive conclusion.

"Viva Coia!" chanted Hispanic delegates from the West Coast

The spirit of the convention's final day may have best been captured as the procedings ground toward a close and Coia's second-in-command, General Secretary-Treasurer R. P. "Bud" Vinall reminded convention floor captains to "pick up the last check for your delegates."

At that reference to the third and final $300 expense check of the Laborers Union's week in Las Vegas, a cry came up from the floor: "Yee hah!"

Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company

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