Providence Journal

[Letter to Editor]

In Defense of Ron Carey and Arthur E. Coia

By Bill Bateman
Laborers Local 271

Jan. 11, 2000

THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL was not content to let Arthur E. Coia "ride off into the sunset" in peace. Seeing the president of the Laborers International Union of North America forced out of office was not satisfaction enough for the voice of business in Rhode Island. The Journal had to smugly rub our noses in it and fire off one last unnecessary pot shot at Arthur Coia's back.

I am a rank and file member of Local 271 of the Laborers International Union of North America who read the Journal's editorial "Coia off into the sunset" on Jan. 3 with disgust. For me it was the straw that broke the camel's back. After years of observing the Journal's war on the Coias and the Laborers Union, I feel compelled to speak out.

Since the day I joined the Laborers Union in 1977, its leaders, Arthur A. Coia, and then his son, Arthur E. Coia, have been under attack by the Journal through "news" articles and editorials. During these past 23 years, I learned what an honest day's work was and I was able to earn decent pay with health benefits, a retirement plan, a legal plan and an annuity.

I'm not at all surprised that the U.S. government found a way to remove Ron Carey as president of the Teamsters and Arthur E. Coia as president of the Laborers before the year 2000. Throughout its history, the U.S. government has always been anti-labor except for brief periods including the Roosevelt administration. The post-war era began with McCarthyism with its witchhunts against "communists" in the 50s, resulting in the ravaging of the most conscious and militant union leadership in the country. Prosperity bought peace for a generation, but by 1980, the war was back on. Ronald Reagan was elected president and PATCO (the air traffic controller's union) was busted in 1981.

For the labor movement, the 1980s and early 1990s were a string of one defeat after another (Brown and Sharpe, Phelps Dodge, Hormel, Greyhound, International Paper, Continental Airlines, Detroit News/Free Press, etc.). There was not much good news on the doorstep. During this period there were also rollbacks in civil rights, welfare rights and health care.

Ron Carey and Arthur Coia both came into their presidencies with the federal government in their midst. The U.S. government sat in on their executive board meetings and had access to all their records and communications, thus overriding workers' inalienable right to sovereignty and self-determination through their unions. Ironically, they both won government-supervised elections by their rank-and file members.

But because of their unions' strategic roles in transportation and construction, and because of the paths they chose, they were both removed from their elected posts by the U.S. government. The Teamsters are the lifeblood of the economy, delivering 80 percent of the shipped goods in this country. The Laborers are the backbone of major construction projects in most of our major cities. Both undertook aggressive organizing campaigns to reach the unorganized. Both of their unions grew significantly at a time when nonservice-sector unions were stagnating or losing members. Both had the vision to see that the character of the working class had changed: Women, immigrants and people of color were heading toward becoming the majority of the working class in the United States.

Ron Carey and Arthur E. Coia committed the crime of including them in their unions, and worse, undertook vigorous organizing campaigns to reach out to them. Ron Carey led the Teamsters of United Parcel Service to one of the biggest labor victories of this generation over the issue of health and retirement benefits for "temporary" workers. Arthur E. Coia was named to head the Organizing Department of the national AFL-CIO. President Clinton also accepted Arthur Coia into the White House, and worse, he invited him onto the golf course.

There are parallels between the Cold War and the war on labor at home. The U.S. government's post World War II dream of breaking up the Soviet Union was realized, with the assistance of "reformers" Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Both in the Soviet Union and in our unions, there were things wrong, yet in each, the cure was worse than the disease. In the Soviet Union, we now see massive unemployment, a rise in infant mortality, a dramatic decrease in life expectancy, an increase in preventable diseases such as TB, a decline in the quality of public education, and a return to child labor, prostitution and drugs.

If the U.S. government, Big Business, and their media accomplices such as the Journal get their way, those conditions will be even more rampant here in the United States than they are now. Fortunately, the people's movements such as the Labor movement are like weeds. You can clip off a leader, but the roots always grow back. The Journal should not be so smug and confident over the sun setting on Arthur Coia.

The disruptions at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle were a "shot heard round the world" invigorating popular movements including the labor movement. Things aren't always what they seem. Many of us believe that labor will have the last laugh.

Bill Bateman lives in Providence

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