Union Made

Laborers' union members, mostly low-paid black and Hispanic workers, financed their president's White House visits while the Justice Department quashed a mob investigation.

WHILE THE CORRUPT money-laundering scheme that allegedly financed Ron Carey's re-election as Teamsters president has been receiving headlines, another labor scandal with profound political implications has garnered relatively little national attention. News came in last week that the former federal prosecutor in charge of investigating corruption in the Laborers union will seek to oust its president, Arthur Coia, on charges of consorting with the Mafia, putting mobsters in charge of key sectors of the union, and taking kickbacks from companies with which the union has contracts.

Rumors have permeated the labor movement for years that Coia was mobbed up. Coia is, in fact, a second-generation labor racketeer; his father, who was the Laborers' secretary treasurer, was an associate of the late New England crime boss Raymond Patriarca. When Patriarca's son took over the Rhode Island-based crime family, he helped grease the younger Coia's ascension from head of the Laborers in Providence to the union presidency.

Coia pere et fils were both indicted by the feds in the 1980s, along with the elder Patriarca, in a kickback scheme (although the charges were thrown out on the technical grounds that the statute of limitations had expired.) The Laborers' 700,000-plus members make Coia one of the country's most important labor leaders, and his support was crucial to the election of John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO. Moreover, Coia is in charge of the AFL-CIO's aggressive new drive to organize nonunion workers.

In November 1994, the Justice Department filed a civil-racketeering complaint against the Laborers, charging that Coia was "associated with and controlled and influenced by organized crime." Yet just four months later, Janet Reno approved an unprecedented settlement with the Laborers that not only left Coia in place, but put him in charge of cleaning up the union. The settlement came only a week after Hillary Clinton spoke to the Laborers' national convention.

Documents unearthed by congressional investigators show that Hillary's speech was cleared by Deputy White House Chief of Staff Harold Ickes--despite a written FBI warning to the White House counsel's office that Coia was a "criminal associate" of gangsters. Ickes had represented the Laborers in his law practice before joining the White House as the Clintons' political enforcer.

Why did Janet Reno's Justice Department back down on its original demand that Coia be removed? Well, the Laborers gave $2.6 million to the Democrats in the '95-'96 election cycle. In the same period the union got over $29 million in federal grants for worker education. A frequent White House visitor (House probers identified 127 contacts between him and the president), Coia gave Bill Clinton a set of expensive golf clubs and received a similar gift in return. The Justice climbdown forestalled action against Coia until after the '96 elections, ensuring that he would not become an electoral millstone around the president's neck and that the campaign cash would keep flowing.

But the Coia scandal is much more than simply another illustration of administration sleaze: It's a body blow to progressive labor at a critical time in the union movement's history. The six-week postponement of the election rerun for the Teamsters presidency--to allow the investigation of Ron Carey to be completed--almost certain guarantees the victory of James Hoffa Jr., frontman for the union's old guard.

Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO's secretary-treasurer and the most progressive and activist-oriented member of Sweeney's leadership team, is being investigated for illegally using federation funds to support Carey's re-election (on the advice of counsel he's already declined to tell the AFL-CIO executive council what he did with the workers' money). Trumka's rise to national prominence came when he headed an anti-corruption slate that won control of the United Mine Workers. Any indictment of him or Carey--also elected as a "reformer"--would besmirch labor's image as it tries to recruit new members.

Coia's removal would not only throw the organizing drive he heads into a shambles, it will dry up a major source of labor money for progressive causes. For example, Coia had been a major funder of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition (and had even provided what was apparently a no-show union job for Jesse Jr. as young Jackson prepared for his successful run for Congress). The Laborers' members, mostly manual workers, are among the lowest-paid unionized employees in the country, a majority of them black and Hispanic. Coia betrayed them.

With the Democratic National Committee left a debt-ridden house of cards by the Clinton re-election fundraising scandals, the party is more dependent on labor than ever as it prepares for the '98 congressional election. Half of union members already vote Republican. The Coia, Carey, and Trumka debacles make it even tougher to reverse that unfortunate trend.

 
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