- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2000

If there is one reason why the American labor movement is in the doghouse it is that it is no longer a movement. It no longer is an activity presumably dedicated to the improvement of wages and working conditions of its dues-paying members.

On the contrary, it has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party. And even worse, over the years we have witnessed the existence of crime-controlled unions led by crooks who robbed their members and the public with impunity. Under George Meany's leadership, the AFL-CIO finally expelled the larcenous Teamsters Union leadership from its midst.

But now we have a scandal that stinks to high heaven, one that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney should do something about if he wants his organization to win public opinion back to at least a neutral view of labor as a movement. In public opinion surveys about which occupations and professions enjoy high public esteem, labor officials are among the lowest. And when you hear this story, thanks to Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times, you'll understand why.

Suppose you are told a crooked union president, forced out of office by U.S. government investigators, was the owner of three Ferraris for which he paid $1,050,000, $450,000 and $215,000 for a total of $1,715,000. And that in making these purchases he had admittedly defrauded municipal and state governments of sales taxes amounting to $100,000, and that this very same labor leader has now been granted the title of president emeritus of the union with an annual salary of $250,000, the same salary he earned when he was the union president what would you think of such a union?

What would you think of a labor leadership which allowed such a disgusting episode to occur? And what would you think of government investigators who agreed to such an annual salary payout of union member dues to its crooked president? At long last, is there no shame in the AFL-CIO Executive Council to allow such a deal to happen?

The union I am talking about is the Laborers' International Union of North America, whose 750,000 members are among the lowest-paid in the construction trades. Its president, Arthur Coia, 56, who retired under pressure from government investigators, has agreed to plead guilty to a single felony fraud charge of cheating his home state, Rhode Island, and his home town, Barrington, of the sales taxes that were due on his purchase of three Ferraris. Punishment? Repayment of the taxes, a $10,000 fine, two years of probation. And the topper: He receives (did the dues-payers vote on this?) a quarter-of-a-million dollar annual salary as "president emeritus" of the union and he gets to keep the Ferraris, I suppose.

Shouldn't some congressional committee take a real look into Mr. Coia's career? The union chieftain, described as a onetime bigtime fund raiser for President Clinton and the Democratic Party and a close buddy of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, took out full page ads (at union expense?) defending the Clintons against Whitewater allegations. And this should interest Mayor Rudy Giuliani: The fact that Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed Mr. Coia's union convention in 1996.

What government agencies do or don't do is a civic question. What the AFL-CIO Executive Council does or doesn't do is a moral question. We all know AFL-CIO labor unions have a jurisdictional independence and can't be interfered with by the Executive Council. But at the very least, AFL-CIO President Sweeney and his associates should express their contempt at Mr. Coia's deal made at the expense of union members and bar the union from an AFL-CIO relationship until something is done about a quarter-million dollar salary for life to a union president who bargain-pleaded a felony charge.

Arnold Beichman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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