Slate, virtually assuring the president of
reelection in the union's first rank-and-file election.
By JOHN E. MULLIGAN
Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Laborers Union General President
Arthur A. Coia easily won reelection over a challenger with
alleged Mafia ties, in the first direct, rank-and-file
vote the corruption-plagued union has ever held.
But Laborers dissidents also claimed victory
- and saw potential trouble for Coia - in yesterday's
results from ballots cast since late November. Coia's
67 percent majority was overshadowed by the 78 percent landslide
for a milestone reform referendum that Coia's forces had worked
"I think it's a historic day for the
Laborers. It's a victory not only for me but for the union,"
Coia, a Rhode Islander, said in a telephone interview from Laborers
headquarters near the White House.
But Herman Benson, president of the Association
for Union Democracy said: "Coia has a problem.
"Coia was elected with only 45,000 votes
from a voting membership of almost half a million. That's
kind of pitiful - not a tremendous expression of support"
against a little-known opponent who mounted "practically
no campaign at all."
Benson added: "It shows Coia didn't
have a very effective machine" for the rank-and-file election.
"I disagree with that," Coia said.
Members voted on their belief "that I am not only a forceful
leader in the Laborers, but also in the labor movement."
Like Benson and some Laborers dissidents, the Justice
Department was heartened by the conclusion
of a comparatively smooth-running and clean election.
They were particularly pleased by the referendum
vote to scrap the current system of electing the union's top international
officers by delegates - traditionally hand-picked by union leadership
- to a convention every five years.
Instead, the 13 vice presidents on the union
board will face a direct vote by the rank and file in the next
election in 2001.
The Justice Department has said that the
old system lent itself to abuse by a corrupt elite who let
the mob dominate the union for most of this century.
Last September, at the Laborers convention
in Las Vegas, delegates elected all of Coia's allies on
the Unity Slate, and, on a voice vote, raised his salary by
19 percent to $250,000.
"Coming on top of last week's Teamsters
victory" for reformer President Ron Carey, the Laborers referendum
outcome "makes this a great day for union democracy,"
But he said the turnout percentage - in the
mid-teens - shows that grass- roots organizers have a lot of
work to do before they can exploit the new potential for democracy
in the Laborers.
For years, Benson's Brooklyn-based group
has styled itself as an organizing and teaching ground for reformers
in the Teamsters, the Laborers and other unions
with traditions of autocratic rule and links to organized crime.
"We are thrilled with the referendum,"
said Craig Oswald, an assistant U.S. attorney from Chicago who
has devoted several years to the Laborers case, including the
1994 draft racketeering complaint against Coia and the
union that set the stage for this year's experiment in union democracy.
That document accused Coia of conspiring
to divert pension funds to organized crime and of tolerating
mob influence in the union. But when Coia and his lawyers
proposed launching an internal cleanup of the union, the government
agreed to a February 1995 pact that permits the government
to step in and seize control if it deems that the purge
is not working. The pact expires in February 1998.
The agreement also triggered negotiations
for election reforms. Coia's team agreed to some reforms
for this year's elections, including independent supervision
of the first mandatory secret ballot for local delegates
in the union's history, plus rank-and-file election of Coia
and the second-in-command (who ran unopposed).
The union also agreed to put the question
of the rank-and-file election of other officers to a referendum
vote. The union came to terms after the federal team threatened
to exercise its takeover option about a year ago.
Coia said that his team wasn't opposing election
reforms, but rather educating outsiders to the reasoning
behind the traditional election system.
Coia - who has acknowledged the union's legacy
of corruption, but denies any wrongdoing himself - said
that the delegate system was built around the union's decentralized
system of locally based collective-bargaining.
"But if the rank and file want to be
part of this," Coia said, "that's fine. If they think
that they want to participate, that's fine." Coia said that
he and his officers maintained neutrality on the referendum question
- as the government had insisted. (SEE CORRECTION ABOVE)
As for his future as the man elected to lead
his union into the 21st century, Coia stressed his desire
to build on his organizing successes in the United States
and Canada. "We are talking to labor leaders in Portugal, Spain"
and elsewhere in Europe about joining the union and "being
part of our vast and lucrative pension funds."
Below are the results released in Chicago
by Stephen B. Goldberg, the union election officer who
oversaw the balloting.
On the question of how to elect executive
board members in the 2001 elections, the result was: direct ballot
by members 49,964 or 78 percent; convention votes by
delegates 14,246 or 22 percent.
For a five-year term as general president,
Coia received 45,626 votes, or 67 percent. Bruno Caruso,
president of the Chicago Laborers District Council and a large
local there, won 22,446 votes, or 33 percent.
From Rhode Island's 11 locals, Coia won 4,238
votes to Caruso's 128 (including a 1,338-to-49 margin
win in his home Local 1033 of Providence municipal workers).
The union's only large block of anti-Coia
dissidents helped Caruso carry the Mail Handlers Division by
a 4,016-to-3,292 margin, a result that Coia said puzzles him
after what he called his efforts to improve relations with
the Mail Handlers.
Larry Adams, the president of the biggest
Mail Handlers unit, Local 300 of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut,
called the result "a protest over the history of
proprietary leadership of the Laborers by the Coia and Fosco families
- it's like a dynasty."
Coia's late father, Arthur E. Coia, was the
union's No. 2 officer, a position the younger Coia held
until he became president upon the death of Angelo Fosco
of Chicago - also the son of a Laborers president - in February
Caruso is a relative unknown among the Northeast-based
Mail Handlers, Adams said. The draft RICO complaint
against the union lays out allegations that Caruso has
family ties to the Chicago Mafia - the traditional center of
Laborers Union power.
Caruso has denied that he has mob ties. He
could not be reached for comment on the election results
Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal
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