Coia Subject Of Controversy At Laborers'
John J. Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO, defies a union election offical
and praises Coia in a speech to the
By JOHN E. MULLIGAN
Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau
Related story:Coia, Laborers celebrate
state of union
LAS VEGAS -- AFL-CIO President John
J. Sweeney refused a direct request by the Laborers' union's election
referee when he spoke in support of union president Arthur A.
Coia at the convention here Monday.
Election officer Stephen B. Goldberg
appointed by the union executive board as part of the union's
agreement with the Justice Department to reform election rules,
decided that parts of Sweeney's prepared speech to the 2,200-delegate
Laborers convention would be impermissible campaigning for Coia's
reelection under new union rules requiring secret ballots, equal
treatment of candidates and other reforms.
"I edited the speech," said,
Goldberg, and asked Sweeney to deliver it without the portion
deemed to be an "endorsement" of Coia.
Sweeney refused. He delivered six
paragraphs of praise for Coia, of Barrington,calling him "a
standup union leader" and acknowledging his personal debt
to Coia for helping him win the presidency of the 13.1 million-member
labor federation last fall.
The convention -- so far a tightly
controlled gathering with Coia presiding -- broke into scattered
boos and curses yesterday morning when Goldberg announced his
When Goldberg added that he had awarded
five minutes of podium time to remedy the "the significant
disadvantage" to Coia's challengers, about half the delegates
walked out of the convention hall, partially disrupting the speech
by dissident candidate Bernard "Barney" Scanlon.
Goldberg, who was appointed by the
union executive board as part of the union's agreement with the
Justice Department to reform election rules, stressed that Sweeney
triggered the election-rules violation "with absolutely no
knowledge of Mr. Coia" or union leadership.
"Be that as it may, Mr. Sweeney,
the prestigious president of the AFL-CIO did endorse and campaign
for Mr. Coia during an official Convention session," Goldberg
said in his decision. "In so doing, he placed the other candidates
at a significant disadvantage."
Goldberg put the violation in the
category of using "union funds and facilities" to assist
one candidate's campaign unfairly. The union paid for Sweeney's
trip to Las Vegas. Coia also presented Sweeney with a commemorative
set of golf clubs, joking that his last exchange of fancy golf clubs
-- with President Clinton -- had sparked controversy.
The union's lawyer appealed Goldberg's
ruling, jeopardizing the five-minute speeches for Coia's rivals
just hours before the balloting. But a union appeals officer upheld
Goldberg shortly before Coia accepted his nomination to a five-year-term,
sparking raucous ovations from the convention
Coia played a key role in the final
stage of Sweeney's election to the AFL-CIO's presidency last October,
boasting at the time that he -- "a local hometown boy from
Providence" -- was the kingmaker in organized labor's most
Sweeney has since become a major figure
in national politics, launching a $35 million advertising and
campaigning blitz against House Republicans.
Sweeney also gave Coia a position
he had sought, the chairmanship of the AFL-CIO's new organizing
Union dissidents have seized on these
circumstances to conclude that Sweeney's actions Monday were an
old-fashioned political payoff. "Trade union elections should
be held to a higher standard because they involve the use of members'
dues," said Jeff Perry, secretary-treasurer of Mail Handlers
Local 30 in New York.
"Coia has repeatedly used union
money to suport Sweeney and in return, here Sweeney has come out
here at union expense to endorse him," Perry said. "Sweeney's
the head of U.S. labor and he should set an example for fair elections
and level playing fields."
Sweeney spokesman David Saltz partly
rebutted Goldberg in a telephone interview: Sweeney's speech was
"pretty standard . . . He didn't say a single word about endorsing any candidate or make any
reference to any election."
Saltz did not directly respond to
the charge that Sweeney's speech was a political quid pro quo
nor answer the question of why Sweeney chose to brush off election
officer Goldberg's request.
Union leaders from Coia down have
portrayed this week's convention, featuring the first secret balloting
in Laborers history, as a key part of the internal reforms that
the union began last year to avert a takeover by the government.
In a draft racketeering complaint, the government had detailed
the Laborers' long history of corruption and charged that Coia was running the
union for the benefit of organized crime. Coia has repeatedy denied
the charge and supporters, including Sweeney and House Minority
Leader Richard Gephardt, have declared this week that Coia's critics
are enemies of labor.
The union adopted election reforms
only after the government threatened to exercise its power to
scrap the in-house cleanup and take over the union.
The Sweeney episode appeared unlikely
to affect the results of balloting that will determine whether
Coia has any opposition in this fall's direct, rank-and-file election
of its top official -- a first for the Laborers.
After yesterday's walkout, half a
house gave scattered catcalls and almost no applause to Coia challenger
Barney Scanlon of Long Island, who said in part: "Arthur
Coia is claiming credit for this reform. But it's not so."
Scanlon instead credited "you brothers and sisters" who have bucked
corruption over the years.
Sam DeChristopher delivered a much
louder five-minute speech on behalf of Coia's other challenger,
fellow Chicagoan Bruno Caruso, in which he blasted the agreement
between the union and the government that created the internal
Election officials will announce today
whether Scanlon or Caruso won the necessary 5 percent of delegate
ballots yesterday to win a place on the fall election ballot with
"I never heard of either of them
until this week," Laborer Paul McNeil of Seattle, a Coia
supporter, said of the two challengers.
Copyright © 1997 The Providence
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