By JOHN E. MULLIGAN
Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau
LAS VEGAS -- Laborers Union general president
Arthur A. Coia, bound by a new ethics code to give up income
from his Providence law firm, secured a 19 percent
raise yesterday - for a new salary of $250,000-a-year in base
pay - capping off a union convention that his forces mastered
Coia's "Unity Slate" won all 13
slots on his governing board and launched him as a prohibitive favorite
this fall in the first secret ballot ever put to the union's
750,000 waste-haulers, construction workers, food
processors and municipal employees.
Coia closed the most democratic convention
in Laborers' annals with an impassioned defense of the government-monitored
anti-corruption reforms he instituted last year - reforms which
staved off a federal takeover of the Laborers and kept Coia in
"This union was resurrected on Feb.
14, 1995" by the reform agreement with the government. "We formed
an alliance to make this union better. It was the right thing
to do," said the 53-year-old Rhode Islander.
"Maybe they thought we had the determination
to get rid of thecorruption. . . And when the government leaves,
we'll still have reform because that's what I believe in,"
Coia said to loud cheers from the 2,116- delegate convention.
Still, there was bitter dissent at this convention
of laser light shows, lavishly produced videos and
field trips to the neon gambling palaces of the Las Vegas Strip.
"You fellows are so far separated from
the actual conditions of the men working on the job every day,"
said Bernard "Barney" Scanlon, 70, a Long Island
construction worker who failed to make the fall balloting for Coia's
"The guy that pulls on his boots in
the morning to do the work that results in the salaries that you
folks make in Washington has got to work for 10 years to equal
the salary that you just voted" for Coia, Scanlon said. "I
hesitate to call this unconscionable greed. But I call it unconscionable.
. . This is a shame. I object."
Coia declined to defend his pay increase.
"I want to talk about training and education," he said
in an interview Wednesday.
Coia judged that the "ayes" had
it on the string of voice votes - some of which seemed difficult to
call - by which his forces pushed through these measures:
New constitutional power for Coia's executive
board to raise his pay and benefits anytime, based on "factors
deemed appropriate by the board."
A 27-percent hike in monthly dues for members
over four years, partly to pay for the anti-corruption
operation that Coia created last year that thwarted a government
takeover of the mob-tainted union.
The elimination of a $1,500 death benefit
to help cover a shortfall in the $8 million fund for a convention.
There were few complaints about paying for expensive
computers for the first secret ballot in union history. But
a significant number of minority delegates who addressed the convention
chastised leaders for excessive spending on frills.
The defeat of resolutions that, according
to Coia's forces and federal prosecutors here, would gut the
union's internal reforms and invite a federal takeover of
As the government had demanded and Coia had
promised, the convention was the most democratic in union
"At least nobody got hurt. At least
none of us got beat up," said Laborer Chris White of Fairbanks, Alaska,
who watched a dissident friend beaten for daring to take
the microphone at the 1981 convention in Florida - where Coia's
On the dues question, Coia ordered time for
both sides equally divided.
Joseph Virgilio, business manager of Providence
municipal workers Local 1033, said international dues
"are helping us to fight the employer, and in our case the
employers are elected politicians" whose "new weapon
is that a raise has got to go to the voters and voters don't want
to pay taxes."
Virgilio said, "That's baloney,"
but added that his bargaining stance would be undermined if the
Laborers decided, in effect, not to raise the union's own taxes.
Others agreed with the need for a strong
union but saw the dues question in the context of excessive
Michael J. Cummings of Local 597 in Oshawa,
Ontario, said 64 pecent of his construction workers are jobless,
relying on food banks and unable to afford the dues
hike of $4 over four years, on top of the current $15 per month.
"There's so much waste in this 21st
convention. I mean, who needed 50 imitation Elvises prancing around
here yesterday morning? I certainly didn't," Cummings
said. "The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer"
The union's new ethics code has cost Coia
a significant but undisclosed amount of income. He has been
a longtime partner in Coia & Lepore, the Providence law
firm that frequently handles workers compensation cases from among
the thousands of Laborers in two locals there.
In accordance with conflict-of-interest provisions
in the union's new ethics code, Coia "recused"
himself last January from certain labor-related profits of his
law firm, according to William Rice, an ex-FBI man who is top
lieutenant in the union's anti-corruption unit.
Is the new raise from Laborers membership
a repayment for lost income Coia has incurred by following the
rules for ethical conduct?
Howard Gutman, Coia's Washington lawyer declined
several times this week to address that question.
"Arthur Coia could double his salary
tomorrow by joining a private practice in Providence," Gutman
said. Gutman also said the raise makes Coia's pay "comparable"
to that of other national union leaders.
Another Coia & Lepore lawyer, New England
regional vice president Armand Sabitoni, was reelected
to his post without opposition yesterday.
Sabitoni, a close friend of Coia, sounded
some of the convention's recurrent themes in his acceptance
speech: organizing, job training, safety and "labor-management cooperation."
All in all, even the sourness over the money
questions dissipated as the convention moved toward
its festive conclusion.
"Viva Coia!" chanted Hispanic delegates
from the West Coast
The spirit of the convention's final day
may have best been captured as the procedings ground toward
a close and Coia's second-in-command, General Secretary-Treasurer
R. P. "Bud" Vinall reminded convention floor captains
to "pick up the last check for your delegates."
At that reference to the third and final
$300 expense check of the Laborers Union's week in Las Vegas,
a cry came up from the floor: "Yee hah!"
Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company
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