Coia Joins Challenge To Head Of AFL-CIO
The Laborers' Union leader from Rhode Island
is part of a group seeking to oust Lane Kirkland.
By JOHN E. MULLIGAN and DEAN STARKMAN
Journal-Bulletin Staff Writers
WASHINGTON -- American labor is a house divided.
A powerful bloc of national union leaders
has made clear its intention to topple Lane Kirkland, the longtime
president of the AFL-CIO.
And now they have enough votes to do it.
A key figure in the looming struggle - and
himself a dark-horse candidate for the presidency - is Arthur
A. Coia, the Providence-born chief of the Laborers' International
Union of North America.
"I think I have the capability,"
The unprecedented challenge to Kirkland is
a sign of growing fear among American unionists. Their numbers
and clout are declining while threats to U.S. labor have increased
from global competition and a shrinking base of manufacturing
Last week, 5 more national unions joined
the initial 11 in the anti- Kirkland forces. The insurgents now
represent about 60 percent of the votes that will be cast in the
AFL-CIO leadership race.
The leader of the opposition, and the front
runner to succeed Kirkland, is John J. Sweeney, president of the
1.1-million-member Service Employees International Union.
"The problem with unions is that we
are irrelevant to the vast majority of unorganized workers in
this country," Sweeney says. He has called for the AFL-CIO
to spend more money on organizing and give more power to women
and minority-group members.
Other potential candidates to challenge Kirkland
are Richard Trumka of the United Mine Workers of America and George
Korpius of the International Association of Machinists.
The challengers intend to select a candidate
in the next few weeks. The elections are scheduled for October,
at the federation's convention in New York City.
Whatever the outcome, a surprising aspect
of the struggle has been Arthur Coia's role.
Since taking over the 770,000-member Laborers'
International Union in 1993, Coia has portrayed himself as a media-wise
model of the "CEO-type" leader that he says is needed
at the AFL-CIO.
Coia presidency a long shot
Coia was one of the few union leaders who
quietly supported President Clinton's campaign to ratify the North
American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. The drive to kill NAFTA
was an AFL-CIO priority.
The stand earned Coia a reputation as a freethinking
leader with an interest in global issues. More tangibly, his stand
helped earn him a "letter- writing friendship" with
a grateful President Clinton.
This month, Coia provided the intellectual
underpinning for the dissident AFL-CIO movement when he wrote
a 10-page letter to fellow labor leaders. The letter has become
something of an unofficial platform in the anti-Kirkland campaign.
Coia wrote that many of the AFL-CIO's problems
could be solved by reorganizing its leadership, which since the
1950s has been centered on the jobs of president and secretary-treasurer.
He says his cabinet-style organization would delegate responsibility
- and in the process help put big labor back on the political
Nonetheless, Coia's bid for the presidency
faces very long odds.
The reason is a Justice Department racketeering
investigation into the Laborers' union, and Coia himself.
Last November, the Justice Department delivered
a 212-page draft of a civil racketeering complaint to Coia, alleging
decades of corruption, violence, undemocratic practices and mob influence in the Laborers.
Although the draft complaint was never filed
by the government, it surfaced as an exhibit in a court dispute
- recently settled - between Coia and a longtime vice president
of the union.
According to court records, the draft complaint
alleged that Coia had long associated with organized crime figures,
and that he tolerated corruption in his union.
The court records say that the Justice Department
draft complaint also alleged that Coia, since becoming president
of the union in 1993, had conspired to funnel money from locals in upstate New York to members of the Buffalo
Last fall, federal prosecutors sought Coia's
removal and a government takeover of the union. Court records
show that the prosecutors demanded that Coia step aside as president
before any settlement talks could begin.
But within weeks, the Justice Department
dropped its demand for Coia's stepping aside, and eventually decided
not to file the racketeering complaint, which had taken three
years to assemble.
In February, Coia and the Justice Department
signed an unusual agreement. It permitted Coia to remain head
of the Laborers and, instead of requiring a government takeover, permitted the union to establish an in-house
system to investigate corruption and organized crime influence.
The Justice Department retained the right
to file a complaint if the union's cleanup efforts fell short.
Coia has denied the draft complaint's allegations
Asked recently how publicity surrounding
the Justice Department probe had affected his standing in the
ruling councils of the AFL-CIO, Coia said, "It doesn't bother
them. . . . They recognize what a draft complaint is."
Coia said he had "openly spoken about"
the Justice Department matter to fellow AFL-CIO leaders during
the February convention that gave rise to the current challenge
"The leadership of what I'm dealing
with understands that those issues had to be developed into a
so-called draft complaint . . . me being president" of the
Laborers, Coia said.
As for the in-house anticorruption effort,
Coia said it was his initiative: "This is my process . .
. my suggestion, my development and my implementation of it. Mine."
Because of the Justice Department probe,
Coia says, he would stand for election against Kirkland only if
drafted as the unanimous choice of the insurgents.
Nevertheless, he has not been coy about helping
to organize the long- simmering challenge to the 73-year-old Kirkland,
who is only the fifth president in the 109-year history of the
American Federation of Labor and its successor organization, the
"The fact that (Coia's) still a player
. . . speaks to the fact that he represents the type of change"
the challengers are seeking, says Victor Kamber, a Washington
And Kirkland - hailed when first elected,
in 1979, as a rare union leader, an intellectual with a world
view - isn't leaving without a fight. Nor have his supporters
shrunk from the fray - once they recovered from the shock of seeing
it go public early this month.
Albert Shanker, president of the American
Federation of Teachers, has written to the members of his union,
citing Kirkland's staunch support of issues dear to them.
Edward J. McElroy, second in command of the
teachers' union and a former chief of the Rhode Island AFT, notes
that Kirkland has always marshaled AFL- CIO resources to lobby Congress for the preservation of key
McElroy has also said that Kirkland may be
taking the blame unfairly for problems that the chief of a loose
labor federation cannot readily solve, because it is such an array
of conflicting interest groups.
A possible face-saving compromise, put forward
by the Kirkland loyalists, would have Kirkland reelected without
further public warring. Then, early in the new term, he would quietly step down.
Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company.
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