New Rules, Same Results For Coia

Strong-arm tactics of the past may be gone, Laborers' union dissidents say, but Arthur A. Coia still rules with an iron hand.

Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau

Related stories The Worlds of Arthur Coia

LAS VEGAS -- Fifteen years ago, Chris White attended a Laborers' union convention in Miami where Dennis Ryan, an Iowa City construction worker, took the floor to nominate a challenger to the president of their mob-tainted union.

Presiding from the dais above was Arthur E. Coia of Rhode Island, then the union's second-ranking officer, thundering about "outsiders" bent on destroying the union. Later, Ryan has said, Coia stood by as delegates and sergeants-at-arms beat Ryan bloody.

Last week, White attended a Laborers convention produced by the late Coia's son, Arthur A. Coia, 53, an impeccably-tailored lawyer from Barrington, who became the union's president in 1993.

The bearded bus driver from Fairbanks, Alaska, had a rueful summary of the procedings: "At least we didn't get busted up."

This time when the candidate White supported for president was recognized for a speech, the worst he got was a shower of curses and boos, plus a walkout by about half of the more than 2,100 delegates - disruptions that Coia and his allies on the dais did nothing to restrain.

"Maybe we've got some of the form of democracy," said White. "But we don't have the content yet.

Behind the glossy videos, the computerized voting and the first stirrings of open debate at the four-day convention, Coia's critics said the election rules still seemed designed to restrict organized, grass-roots dissent. And they said the old guard pushed the limits of the rules relentlessly to get their way.

By the end of the week, it was clear that Coia had so consolidated his power that he is a shoo-in to win another five-year term in voting later this fall, the first rank-and-file election since the union was organized in 1903. The 750,000-member union represents such workers as waste haulers, municipal employees, construction workers and auto-part assemblers.

Exhibit A for the weak, would-be insurgency was the results: A clean sweep for Coia's "Unity Slate," an overwhelming vote for Coia's nomination to the fall election, and the adoption of the Coia team's entire package of amendments to the union's constitution.

The package included Coia's raise, from $201,624 to $254,000 a year; a new mandate that the union buy or rent the president a home in Washington; and broadened discretionary power for the executive board to raise Coia's pay at will.

Also ratified by the convention without recorded votes were a dues increase; the cancellation of a death benefit; and an open-ended grant of new board power to change the constitution between conventions.

Coia's personal lawyer, Howard Gutman, said the union's internal reform office will guard against abuse of the executive board's new powers. But federal authority to monitor those watchdogs expires in February 1998.

BUT THE DISSIDENTS were more upset about the means than the ends.

White's candidate was Bernard "Barney" Scanlon, 70, a construction worker from Long Island who won but 39 votes in his challenge to Coia. Scanlon said the convention's organizers stacked the deck with old-fashioned political tricks that were unbecoming in a forum billed as a key step toward union democracy.

Such potentially divisive issues as the dues increase and Coia's pay hike, were raised on the convention's last day. That spared Coia and his allies the risk of defending the touchy proposals on the convention floor before they stood for their own nominations.

The scheduling also made it easier to "ram through" the measures, as delegates watched the clock for time to dash for the airport or retire to the gaming tables, Scanlon said.

But almost by definition, the convention's actions, if not its tactics, were pleasing to many delegates, as was the pose of defiance toward his critics that Coia struck.

They cheered his opening denunciation of the "vicious lies" by "anti-worker, anti-union enemies."

They laughed at his running gag about his pointed choice of gifts for his high-powered guest speakers, who ranged from AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney to the one-time Democratic vice-presidential candidate, former Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro of New York.

The gift set of commemorative golf clubs bearing the convention seal was a reminder that President Clinton had taken some flak over his exchange of fancy clubs with his political friend Coia.

It happened late in 1994, shortly before the Justice Department charged Coia in a draft of a racketeering suit with running his union for the mob's benefit. Coia forged an agreement with the department that saved his job and staved off a federal takeover of the union.

The price was a promise to reform from the inside, run democratic elections and cede the government the right to seize the Laborers anytime that the reforms were deemed unsatisfactory -- until the pact expires in February 1998.

COIA IS STILL ONE one of the biggest Democratic fund-raisers, and last week he worked the rooms at the Las Vegas Hilton like a seasoned politician. "I know President Clinton on a first-name basis, that's true," Coia told a Mail Handlers caucus in midweek. "I know John Sweeney by first name. I know congressmen. I know a couple of Supreme Court justices, too, and I think that's pretty good -- not for me! It's for the union."

It was Sweeney who came closest to flouting the union's democratic reforms last week. Against the specific request of Laborers election officer Stephen B. Goldberg, Sweeney used his speech during prime convention time to praise Coia -- before the balloting for president.

Goldberg, a Northwestern University labor law professor who is paid by the union, announced to the convention that the speech was a violation of the union's rules because it deprived other candidates of a significant advantage.

Coia's forces booed Goldberg's ruling, announced the same day that half the delegates walked out as Scanlon rose for a five-minute speech awarded him to make up for Sweeney's endorsement.

SUCH DISPLAYS WERE drummed up in the front of the room by New England and California delegation captains clad in distinctive white jackets, according to Alex Corns of Daly City, Calif., a member of the Hod Carriers union. Because of restrictions on press access, the charge was difficult to assess. But in random interviews, more than a dozen of the delegates who walked out denied the charge. To a man, they said they left the hall to "get some air" or "get a drink of water."

Coia struck the gavel for the rights of the minority on Thursday -- after Scanlon's challenge was buried, after all 14 members of Coia's "Unity Slate" were elected and after Coia was assured his front-runner's slot on the fall ballot.

When boos greeted Scanlon's speech against the members' dues hike and Coia's pay raise, Coia broke in: "Let me say this to you, brothers and sisters. We are encouraging more than ever before dissents and discussion. We want equal order for everyone. Do I make myself clear?"

Order came instantly.

Dan Rusnak of Sparks, Nev., a Coia backer and business manager of a local of miners and other workers, said most delegates accept the government-monitored anti-corruption efforts. Rusnak said they think the dissidents want a government takeover, an outcome many delegates feared most, because of what a similar government move cost Teamsters locals in dollars and autonomy.

But the dissidents say they want nothing more than a fair crack at helping to run their union, and they fear that they are about to lose that opportunity for good.

This fall, the Laborers rank and file face an even more crucial decision about their future when they choose between incumbent Coia and challenger Bruno Caruso, a Chicago local leader with alleged ties to organized crime.

They will decide whether to choose all the international officers by direct election, rather than the way they were chosen last week -- by vote of delegates to the convention.

When Atty. Gen. Janet Reno announced the election reforms ordered for the union last February, Corns, the dissident hod carrier from California, said grass-roots challenges to the old-guard will be impossible without direct election of regional leaders. Little-noted at the time, was the option that Coia's lawyers insisted on to let his local leaders decide whether to run the referendum by mail ballot or at the union hall.

"If I had the power to order a nationwide mail ballot, I'd do it in a flash," said election officer Goldberg, because labor history shows that mail balloting doubles turnout. Low turnout typically favors the status quo.

This chapter of the reform of the Laborers' Union may bear out a prediction that Coia made last summer in an interview with a Washington newsletter, The Daily Labor Report. "You know that we will have all these new election procedures," Coia said, but "the results will be the same."

Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company.
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