|T h e t r u t h a b o u t|
|N A T L F E D|
Service Group Linked to "Cultic" Organization
by Joshua Resnick
A year ago, Jennifer Kling was just another sophomore at Williams College. Towards the end of first semester, she began volunteering for Western Massachusetts Labor Action (WMLA) on weekends. A short time before first semester finals, she was recruited to become a full time member and sent to National Labor Federation headquarters in New York City for training. Without a word, she left school shortly before finals and became a full-time volunteer.
Jenny was one of the lucky ones, however. After two months living under physically and psychologically intense conditions in a Brooklyn apartment, she left the apartment and the group in the middle of the night, leaving all of her possessions behind.
It's likely that over the past few weeks, you have encountered WMLA in Baxter mailroom. Maybe they've pulled you aside and had you listen to their speeches on the plight of the seasonal and service workers in Berkshire County. You may have even participated in fund-raising drives "bucket drives"), recruitment drives ("canvassing") or wood cuts to gather fuel for families without heat.
While there's no denying that WMLA does actually do some good in Northern Berkshire County, what at first glance appears to be a harmless -- if somewhat overaggressive -- social service organization is actually one of over 40 organizations or "entities" for the National Labor Federation (NATLFED), which has been characterized by cult watch organizations, government agencies, journalists and former members as one of the most extreme and controlling political cults in the country. WMLA has pulled at least three Williams students into NATLFED and its entities in the past decade and two in the past year alone.
National Political Cult
According to numerous cult experts and former NATLFED members, NATLFED attracts members through the guise of community activism, a guise which is created through the good works done by fronts such as WMLA. Once members get involved full time, they find that they are in an organization which bears little relationship to the group they thought they were joining. Members also find that they are unable and unwilling to leave NATLFED due to extensive physical and mental control mechanisms, mechanisms which Janja Lalich, a former political cult member who has written extensively on cults, characterized as "classic cultic mechanisms."
According to Lalich, NATLFED's mechanisms include: "Sleep deprivation, pointless busy work, separation from families and friends. People join and, within a month, they are gone into the national organization. They are subjected to repeated, droning lectures. These are ways of tangling the capacity for critical thinking. They are put through an indoctrination program so that they begin to doubt their own instincts of right and wrong. The organization relies heavily on guilt to keep people in line."
WMLA director Ed Coffin refused to comment on charges of both WMLA's and NATLFED's cultic behavior, saying that such allegations are always raised against individuals and groups seeking social change. As of press time, NATLFED was not able to be reached for comment.
When Coffin was asked specifically for statement on the mission and purpose of WMLA and what projects they were working on for the immediate future, he refused to comment.
According to FBI documents, the National Labor Federation is the "secret" organizational locus for the Communist Party, Provisional (CPP), a quirky political group which espouses an odd hybrid form of Marxism/Leninism and which has at least once claimed that it will lead the armed revolution in the United States. While the FBI has used this supposed threat of armed insurrection to raid the national headquarters, experts on the cult raise serious doubts as to the revolutionary ability and intent of the group.
According to Joseph Kelley, who is an exit counselor for cult members, most of the energy of NATLFED does not go into organizing an effective political body to bring about the revolution, but into giving the members menial tasks intended to absorb and exhaust them and make them completely -- physically, psychologically and emotionally -- committed to the organization. According to Kelley, the facade of revolutionaryism exists to give an ideology to the members. The real goal of the cult, as is true with many political cults, is its own self-perpetuation. "It exists for its own ends. They don't really try to achieve what they say they want to achieve. . . . The amount of wheel spinning that goes on is unbelievable," Kelley said.
People who join NATLFED through one of the front groups find that they are pulled slowly into a world of increasing physical and psychological control. The organization devours the time of the full-time volunteer so that they are working or sitting in indoctrination lectures for 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Ex-members report that they are constantly so exhausted that there is no way for them to muster the energy to think critically about what they are doing, no way to evaluate whether the beliefs they are espousing and activities they are performing are a result of their own wishes or the wishes of the cult.
Members are urged to give up their former lives: contact with friends or family for any reason whatsoever is heavily discouraged. Members live together, jammed into apartments in the Brooklyn headquarters, so there is absolutely no contact with other points of view. Dissent is not allowed. All incoming mail is read by cult superiors. All movements are regulated and tracked through what the organization calls "trafficking," a system of unimaginably tight bureaucracy in which members have to fill out forms for every action even something as simple as using the downstairs bathroom in the organization's Brooklyn headquarters.
"The National Labor Federation is one of the most controlling organizations there is. Once you become a full time member, very few people leave," Kelly said.
This general assessment was echoed by Lalich: "As political cults go, NATLFED is a very, very extreme cult. Not so much in terms of its acting out publicly, but in its control of its members. Most groups would allow you to return home for the holidays or a wedding or a funeral. This group will try to keep you from leaving. Once you're in, you don't see the light of day.
Jenny Kling's Story
Jenny Kling's story paints a grim picture of the link between Williams, WMLA and NATLFED.
Kling says she first learned of the WMLA at a community service fair at Williams. She signed up for WMLA in addition to some other community service organizations and began devoting her Saturdays to working for WMLA.
"It seemed like a really good program. We went around knocking on people's doors, asking them to join the WMLA," Kling said. "I was thinking of taking a year off from Williams, working for some volunteer project. . . . I was already doing this WMLA stuff and it seemed to be a good program, so I continued."
Kling says that she told current director of WMLA Ed Coffin that she was thinking of being a full time volunteer. "He said, 'Oh!' And over the next couple of days, when he got back to me, he asked if I'd be willing to meet with some national leaders in New York City. . . . That was finals week. I went and met them and that's where I stayed."
The people Kling met in New York were members of the National Labor Federation. For the next two months, Kling lived in the NATLFED headquarters/apartments at 1107 Carroll St. in Brooklyn.
"What I did mostly was work on their newspapers for the different organizations around the country," Kling said. "You go to classes and they teach you about the history of their organization . . . well, just theories, what they believe, what they call 'lines,' basically the propaganda that they expect you to learn. You're not allowed your own opinions, or at least not allowed to voice them," she continued.
According to Kling, a major part of the indoctrination was based on guilt.
Chip Berlet, a senior associate at Political Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass., described how cults prey on their members' guilt to keep them in line. Political Research Associates is a small organization that studies authoritarian groups. "Like most totalitarian groups, they basically use guilt to keep people in line and in the cult. They find people of above average intelligence and prey on their guilt in 'unearned' privilege."
In Kling's case, this guilt pressure manifested itself when she expressed a desire to return home for Christmas. She was called before the cult leaders, who put intense pressure on her not to leave. Eventually, she did go home, but after she had been there for three days, they pressured her to return to New York.
NATLFED put very severe restrictions on Kling's ties to the outside world. "I didn't go out of the apartment except maybe a couple times," Kling said. "Phone and mail contact are discouraged -- partly by having so much other stuff to do. Also, they read your mail. . . . I had to rewrite a letter to my mom three times."
Kling said that all of her movements were tracked extremely closely. Requests to do anything had to be submitted in writing.
Finally, the time pressures, thought control and restrictions on movement, as well as a severe case of untreated asthma, prompted Kling to leave the cult. Like most NATLFED members who have managed to get out, Kling left in the middle of the night, leaving all of her possessions behind. And, like most ex-NATLFED members, she said that the cult probably would not have physically restrained her had they known that she was going to leave, but that the intense emotional and psychological pressure that would have been put on her would probably have stopped her from walking out the door.
When asked if she would characterize NATLFED as a cult, Kling said, "By their way of recruitment. I'd say yeah, it's a cult."
The Cult Connection: Close Ties Between NATLFED, WMLA
The connection between NATLFED and WMLA is more than just casual. WMLA is listed as a front organization for NATLFED by a variety of cult watch organizations including the Cult Awareness Network based in Chicago, The Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, Political Research Associates and the New York/New Jersey Cult Awareness Network. Most knowledgeable sources contacted indicated that WMLA actions are controlled tightly by NATLFED. An FBI raid summary from 1984 lists WMLA as one of 41 front organizations for NATLFED/CPP.
Williams Class of 1924 Professor of Political Science, Emeritus Kurt Tauber, who has been involved with WMLA since it set up shop in Pittsfield two decades ago, described the organizational ties as very close.
"The relationship is a very close one. The national seems to be organizing in a fairly rigid sort of way. The local organization retains a certain amount of autonomy in their day to day affairs . . . but the theory of recruiting and organizing. . . . All of that comes from headquarters," Tauber said.
People closer to the cult characterize the relationship as extremely close. One woman close to the NATLFED leadership said, "I've seen [WMLA] get orders every day." According to the woman, every "entity," NATLFED's name for the front groups, has a liaison at the national headquarters. She said that Ed Coffin, the current director of WMLA, receives orders from the WMLA liaison every day.
"Every entity has a liaison in Brooklyn, and sometimes an assistant liaison. That's the person that calls Ed and harasses him every day and says, 'Wake up Ed. How come you haven't done this today. Publish your canvasses. Here's the new policy. Reverse what you did yesterday. We want you to raise money. We wrote this telephone pitch for you.' That type of thing is all done in Brooklyn," the woman said.
The many front organizations are set up for two primary reasons. First and most importantly, they act as fly paper to attract social activists by providing an appearance of respectability.
"Front groups are there essentially to feed people into the center of the organization. The front is used to show off an attractive face in order to recruit volunteers," Lalich said.
Second, according to an article by Jeff Whitnack in the summer 1984 edition of the liberal investigative journal the Public Eye, the front organizations exist as "a framework to collect, record and cross-reference all new information and names in an elaborate system of files and paperwork."
The Role of WMLA: Locals Helped, Larger Goal Not Met
All of this is not to say that the entities are not responsible for good work within the community. Much of WMLA's time is spent on such projects as fund-drives, membership canvassing and wood-cutting.
A WMLA pamphlet describes WMLA as "a voluntary membership mutual benefits association comprised of seasonal, service and other low income workers in Massachusetts. . . . For a fee of sixty-two cents a month, the Ten-Point Benefits program offers emergency food and clothing, non-emergency dental care, legal and medical assistance, information and referral, monthly membership newsletter and Benefits Plan II."
In several conversations with WMLA director Ed Coffin, he emphasized WMLA's work during the cold Berkshire winters to act as an advocacy group to make sure that impoverished Berkshire county residents have heat and electricity. In addition, WMLA operates a wood distribution program for people who have had their heat shut off.
The stated goal of WMLA, as with all NATLFED entities, is to organize unorganized labor (specifically seasonal and service workers which the group sees as particularly underrepresented) into a self-sustaining mutual benefits organization.
According to Tauber, who has served on WMLA's board of directors since shortly after its opening in Pittsfield, "They are trying to organize poverty communities, people who have been impoverished by the conditions in which they have to live . . . into self-sustaining local political groups that can take care of their own interests in terms of how utility companies treat them and so on and so forth."
When asked if he thinks WMLA is effective, Tauber said, "In conventional terms of doing important social agency work, helping people who have lost out, who have been oppressed or exploited, in those terms, they're doing perfectly fine."
Tauber also said, however, that WMLA has been largely unsuccessful in its larger goal of organizing workers into a permanent association. "In their own terms, namely not to be a social service agency but a social change agency, namely organizing people for political action, I don't think they have gotten very far," Tauber said.
Other cult experts characterized WMLA's community service activities as far more insidious.
"In actual experience, the volunteers think that they are serving the community, but they are actually serving the central group," Lalich said.
A number of sources both in and out of the organization claim that WMLA is highly dishonest in terms of what its true aims are. Just about every cult expert, ex-WMLA volunteer and ex-NATLFED member interviewed for this article said that part-time volunteers interested in lending a hand to what seems to be a standard community service organization often find themselves pulled into an intense and disconcerting indoctrination program aimed at converting them from part-time helpers to full time devotees of the national organization.
Cultic Methods: Psychological, Physical Control
NATLFED appears to resort to all of what are commonly understood as classic cultic mechanisms in order to recruit and retain members.
The NATLFED entities are incredibly aggressive in their recruiting tactics. Once someone shows any interest in the organization, members will pursue the person until he or she volunteers. Once the person volunteers, he or she will be pressured to do more and more. Members are often told that the methods of the particular entity are the only possible methods that work. Any possibility of an alternative is precluded by the rhetoric of the organization.
Once an individual enters the organization, his or her commitment is complete -- All life before joining the organization is rendered meaningless by the cult. One family said of their daughter, who is still a member of NATLFED, "Her whole life experience before she joined the group has been reinterpreted."
Members give up personal possessions and nearly all ties with their past when they become involved full-time. Especially for members at the NATLFED headquarters, contact with family and friends is minimal. There is no one to encourage members to question what they are doing, no one to offer alternative judgments.
While mention of mind-control techniques are frequently scoffed at as the stuff of B-grade horror movies, former cult members and families of current members say that such techniques are all too real and are frighteningly effective. Cult members are generally suffering from severe sleep and nutritional deprivation, which makes them physically and emotionally incapable of questioning authority; their lives are absorbed by generally meaningless tasks and senseless bureaucracy, they are constantly bombarded with dogma by cult leaders.
Cut off from their former life, sustained contact with those with other views and opinions becomes impossible. All of these factors combine to eat away at the individual's ability to think critically. A mother of a current NATLFED member said that her daughter's thoughts are controlled "by living in a way in which her time is filled up with trivial tasks, with guilt, with sleep deprivation, with the feeling that everything is your fault. The mind control there is intense, and that is the hardest thing to comprehend," the mother of a current NATLFED member said.
This process is strikingly rapid. According to Roseman, her friend became completely absorbed in the cult in less than two weeks.
According to former cult members, the psychological control exerted by NATLFED is its main way of keeping people in the organization. "In the past, the group probably used physical restraint to keep members, but now the restraint is psychological," Lalich said. "Once the thought reform changes have taken place and you are thinking the way the group wants you to think, you become unable to walk through the door and leave without permission. All the things they trained you to believe will be dumped on your head if you walk through that door," she continued.
According "to Lalich, typical of a cult's methods is the fact that NATLFED leaders do not admit the possibility that there is any other method which might successfully bring change. members are taught to believe that the cult's methods are the only path to success. While new members are ostensibly the most important because they can "bring in new ideas," the cult makes no place for new or different ideas.
Some of the most striking controls NATLFED puts on its members appear to be in the form of constant pointless activity and bureaucracy. One woman depicted "traffic," the mechanism through. which the cult keeps constant tabs on the members. "The traffic person sits near the back of the apartment. When you come in, you report to traffic. If you want to leave, you have to get permission from traffic. Everything you do has to go through traffic.
The Williams Connection: WMLA Has Long History at College
Williams has historically had a very strong connection with WMLA. Kurt Tauber was active with the organization since its inception. Currently, several, professors regularly invite Ed Coffin into their classes to speak about the plight of the laborer.
Professor of Political Science Alex Willingham invites the group into his classes. "They have goals that seem worthwhile. They present a way of working on some strategies," Willingham said.
Assistant Professor of Economics Michael Samson also lets Coffin speak in his classes. "Ed works with the working poor in the Berkshires. He deals with the real problems of the working poor critical to the real life issues that economics addresses. He makes you realize how difficult it is for people to survive under minimum wage," Samson said.
Both Samson and Willingham said that they had heard rumors about the connection of WMLA with NATLFED, but neither knew anything substantive on the issue.
Both professors allowed Coffin to pass around a sign-up sheet in class. Coffin was able to recruit several volunteers through the classes.
One student, who had a bad experience with WMLA after signing up to go on a wood cut and finding himself canvassing and listening to WMLA doctrine, said, "It bothers me that professors bring these guys into classes. That makes it seem legitimate."
A number of other students have been turned off from WMLA by the strong recruitment tactics employed by the organization.
Jordan Tama '98 got involved in WMLA through one of Samson's classes. After going on a couple of canvases, Tama said that Coffin's recruitment tactics turned extreme. "It came to be a problem for me because I liked doing the canvassing, but he came to be a person who was very aggressive," Tama said "It was like he was trying to recruit us to live with him in Pittsfield and be a full-time organizer." Coffin invited Tama to spend the night at the Pittsfield offices. Tama went with four other Williams students. What Tama had thought would be a night of work turned into a night of attempted indoctrination. "He had made it sound more that we were going to do work, but instead, it was like getting a lecture," Tama said.
After the experience, Tama became less and less involved with WMLA. "The main factor was Ed. . . . I was looking to do community service and he wanted to recruit me for his cause. . . . And sometimes I would argue with him because he would misrepresent things and present things as fact that weren't true. I wasn't getting anything out of this except aggravation."
A second Williams student who became involved on a full-time basis with WMLA during the past year is Thacher Kent. According to his friends, Kent became increasingly involved with WMLA over the summer. After his involvement had increased to full-time, six or seven days a week, Kent was asked to go down to the headquarters in New York for three days. Ultimately, he was gone for 10 days. According to a friend, when he came back, he announced that he had decided to drop out of school and move down to WMLA headquarters in Pittsfield.
Kent refused to comment on his experience working for WMLA.
One of his friends said that when a group of Kent's friends visited him, all Kent would do was try to convert them, he wouldn't acknowledge that he had once had an outside relationship with them.
According to people close to Kent, all normal relationships with him from before he left for WMLA have ceased. They say that Kent will now only relate to them as a recruiter to potential recruits.
The Williams connection to WMLA does not end there. When Blaine MacKay '83 graduated Williams, he went to work for WMLA. According to MacKay, he was transferred to a press collective on the West Coast and finally to the Women's Press Collective in Brooklyn. Both of these organizations are recognized NATLFED fronts.
According to Josh Karpf, a former volunteer for the Women's Press Collective, it was MacKay who pulled him aside after Karpf had spent half a year at the collective and asked Karpf if he wanted to be involved in the national organization.
It cannot be denied that WMLA does some good. Part-time volunteers chop wood which is distributed to families without heat and give emergency food and clothing to needy families. WMLA also provides some medical and legal services to families. Although the number of people it helps may be less than what it claims and although sources indicate that WMLA, like all NATLFED entities, skims at least some of the donations for impoverished Berkshire residents off the top to support themselves (full time volunteers in NATLFED agencies draw no salaries from NATLFED), people are being helped by WMLA.
It is also clear, however, that WMLA's most important, if latent, goal is to serve as a front for NATLFED. WMLA members spend a disproportionately large amount of their time performing pointless activities. The political connections and the true nature of NATLFED is kept hidden. Volunteers who think they are going to cut wood or canvass find themselves in political lectures. WMLA also aggressively pressures volunteers into greater and greater time commitments.
In addition, WMLA has been largely ineffectual in accomplishing its stated goal of organizing unorganized labor. "From the point of view of actually creating a self-sustaining group that can do without them, I don't think they have succeeded," Tauber said. As reported above, there is significant evidence that this goal of organizing the unorganized seasonal and service workers is a goal which NATLFED does not actually want its entities to meet.
What's a School to Do?
by Joshua Resnick
The possibility that WMLA was acting in an organized way to solicit full-time volunteers was first recognized by the Dean's Office when Jenny Kling did not appear for first semester finals last year. According to an account by Assistant Dean of the College Monica Martinez, the Dean's Office learned that Kling had dropped out of school to work for Western Massachusetts Labor Action (WMLA) and had subsequently been sent to New York City. Martinez said that after investigation over the summer, she learned the nature of the National Labor Federation (NATLFED)'s ties to WMLA.
Williams is not the first school to face the problem of NATLFED groups recruiting on campus.
In 1978, Antioch College removed the California Homemakers Association (a NATLFED entity) from its listing of community service organizations students could work for to receive credit after it was found that half the students who volunteered at this organization did not return to school.
Ironically, NATLFED has found a roundabout way to return to Antioch. In 1983, EFWA members infiltrated and ultimately took over the board of a church-run volunteer service organization called the Commission on Voluntary Service and Action (CVSA). The group, which had very little funding, had one jewel of interest to NATLFED, a volunteer guide called Invest Yourself.
Until that point, the guide, which sells over 12,000 copies annually, had listed mostly religious organization-affiliated volunteer services. After the NATLFED infiltration (which was not discovered by other CVSA board members until a year later), more than 40 entries for NATLFED entries were published in the guide. After a long battle between church and NATLFED factions of the CVSA board, NATLFED retained control of the CVSA and published the guide. The names of the members of the editorial board of Invest Yourself also appeared on the masthead of the Long Island Farmworker, the newsletter for the EFWA.
Ironically, Antioch College advertises in Invest Yourself. According to Chip Berlet, the guide has provided a means for NATLFED to find its way back onto campuses from which it had been removed.
New York University faced NATLFED a issue two years ago. According to Sally Arthur, vice president for Student Affairs at NYU, the Women's Press Collective was banned from the NYU community service fair when it was discovered that the organization was part of a cult.
Williams administrators are very hesitant to ban WMLA from the campus because of a strong belief that the right to free association applies to all groups, including WMLA and NATLFED. Dean of the College Peter Murphy refused to ban them from classrooms, citing issues of academic freedom.
"The role of WMLA on our campus is an issue of concern, and we have been both watching it carefully and evaluating its effects. I believe that such issues need to be approached with great care, especially on a campus where the free exchange of ideas is valued very highly. In the coming months we hope to develop a regular policy towards WMLA that is respectful of them and the safety and well-being of our students, and which is consistent with our commitment to the independence of student life and a free and vigorous intellectual community," said Murphy.
"We are concerned about the connection between WMLA and the National Labor Federation. People such as the National Cult Network has documented that NATLFED is a 'cult.' Though we all have different images that are conjured up with that word, such as religious or satanic, according to what I've read, cults exist more than ever in e very seemingly innocuous forms and that colleges . . . should be cognizant of this and prepared to respond," Martinez said.
Call a Spade a Spade
At what point does a school draw the line between protecting the student body and respecting the right to free speech and association? This is the question the college must ask itself in deciding what action to take against Western Massachusetts Labor Action.
The most dangerous feature of the organization is its connection to the National Labor Federation (NATLFED), which is generally recognized as one of the most extreme and controlling political cults in the country.
WMLA consistently misrepresents itself to students. Students who think they are getting involved in a charitable social service organization quickly discover that the agenda of WMLA is political indoctrination and conversion, with a small component of social service.
WMLA's recruitment tactics cross the line between aggressive pursuit and outright harassment. Several students have complained that their refusal to let themselves be accosted by WMLA workers in Baxter mailroom has resisted in verbal attacks by the workers. Students who have signed their name on WMLA's list in an effort to escape find themselves caught on the phone for long periods of time listening to the droning, pushy, guilt-inducing voice of Ed Coffin, director of WMLA.
There are already a disturbingly large number of students on campus who intentionally avoid the mailroom when Coffin and his WMLA cadre come to town for fear of being railroaded into a political monologue by Coffin on why the student has to work for the organization.
And as of last week, WMLA begun aggressive attempts to solicit up to $100 from students, funds which will undoubtedly largely go to pay for the sustenance of the uncompensated full-time "organizers" of WMLA rather than to the working poor as Coffin promises.
All these factors mean that the school can and should take decisive action to remove WMLA from our campus. The issue of free speech, it seems, is moot because the group clearly misrepresents itself. False advertising is not protected speech; why should a private college -- which has the legal right to exclude any group it wishes -- see fit to protect it?
WMLA has crossed the line from solicitation to harassment. We don't pay $26,000 a year to be cursed at or to be made to feel uncomfortable in our own mailroom by members of a cult we don't want to join.
On several occasions, members of the faculty have invited WMLA into their classrooms to speak about the organization's goals and the plight of the poor in Berkshire County. The issue of WMLA members in classrooms is more difficult. Principles of academic freedom demand that professors be allowed to teach what they want to teach. Although the college should not ban WMLA from classrooms, professors should recognize that the group is not what it claims to be. Yes, it does some good work in the community, but this is a front. It is flypaper intended to attract intelligent, well-off, socially conscious college students and feed them into NATLFED, an irrefutably cultic organization. By giving WMLA time in class, professors are giving tacit legitimacy to what is at best a fraudulent and at worst a dangerous organization. Several students have indicated that they got involved in WMLA because of the legitimacy given it by its presence in the class only to find that the group was not what it seemed.
The issue of the rest of the campus is more straightforward. As Chip Berlet, a senior analyst with Political Research Associates, a watch-group for authoritarian organizations, said, "Most responsible colleges have already banned [NATLFED] from campus." So should Williams College.
'Appearances Can Be Deceiving'
by Joshua Resnick
In the Western Massachusetts Labor Action offices in Pittsfield, a small sign reads, "Appearances can be deceiving." There is perhaps no more curiously appropriate epithet for WMLA, which is an exceedingly difficult organization to characterize.
On the one hand, there is no denying that WMLA does some perhaps even considerable good for the community. It supplies wood and clothing to the freezing during the harsh winters. There is no doubt that at least some Berkshire County residents are helped by the organization's "mutual benefit association," a system of emergency medical care, food, fuel, and clothing supplied to some WMLA "members." It does appear to act as an advocate for the poor on such matters as heat and electricity shutdown.
On the other hand, WMLA misrepresents what it is -- namely a front organization for the National Labor Federation (NATLFED), an organization well-documented as a political cult. But generally, part-time volunteers for WMLA will have little exposure to the internal organizational intrigue. They will only be exposed to the good works of WMLA.
The purpose of this column, then, is to point out that even as a social service agency, WMLA is very far from what it could or claims to be.
WMLA claims that its goal is to organize the working poor into mutual benefit associations. Most of the organization's energies are spent on canvassing drives aimed to gather names for the mutual benefit association. As was pointed out by Joan Coughlin, Executive Director of Berkshire Community Action, because WMLA receives no state or federal funding, it is not required to report any of its activities. As a result, there is no way to tell how many of the people who sign up are actually helped by WMLA. According to numerous experts on NATLFED and its front organizations (one of which is WMLA), one of the major goals of the fronts is to generate lists upon lists of names which bear very little correlation to those who actually receive aid. While some families are undoubtedly helped by WMLA, it is likely that the canvassing work done by volunteers is done primarily to create and deliver lists of names which can be sent to the central headquarters in order to boost membership claims.
According to Coughlin, the lack of an obligation to report means that there is no way to tell where the money that donors give to WMLA is spent. According to Janja Lalich, a significant portion of the funds collected are directed back at NATLFED. A major reason for the existence of the peripheral entities such as WMLA is to gather money for the central organization. Again, there is no question that some of the money goes directly to helping the poor, but a significant amount is directed elsewhere generally without the knowledge or consent of the donors.
Finally, the organization misrepresents itself to its volunteers. Many who have volunteered briefly for WMLA complain that they thought they were going to do community service but ended up in a droning political lecture that went on for hours. The organization attracts people by holding up a not altogether illegitimate face of community service to draw volunteers into a larger organization whose goals are very different from the WMLA claims.
I cannot deny that WMLA does some good; however, as social organizations do, WMLA is misleading and ineffective. Based on accounts of former volunteers, WMLA's primary interests are something other than strict community service. I urge students not to volunteer for this organization. There are numerous reputable service organizations in Berkshire County which can use your help to do considerable good in the community. Don't fall into an organization which uses attractive rhetoric and false promises to solicit you into a duplicitous and ineffective organization.
As Chip Berlet, senior analyst for Political Research Associates, which track authoritarian organizations, said, "There's no doubt that on an individual level, some people get help, but it's really a parody of a social service organization. . . . They recruit people who could be effective social organizers and confine them to a Kafka-esque hell of pointless activity."
History, Structure of National Labor Federation
by Joshua Resnick
The National Labor Federation began in 1972 with the founding of the Eastern Farm Workers Association (EFWA -- currently one of the largest of the entities) on Long Island by a man going by the name of Eugenio Perente. Perente claimed that EFWA stemmed out of Cesar Chavez's United Farm workers. In reality, Perente probably had only minimal contact with Chavez.
Before starting EFWA, Perente, who was born Jerri William Doeden in Minnesota in 1937, ran a "Little Red Bookstore" in San Francisco. He was the leader of the Liberation Army Revolutionary Group Organization (LARGO). The organization declared revolution in the United States on March 15, 1970. Doeden claimed that LARGO would take over key West Coast government installations by the next year. The organization disbanded before the promised date and Doeden disappeared.
He reappeared under the name Perente a year later and founded EFWA and later NATLFED. NATLFED soon became the parent organization of more than 40 entities.
NATLFED falls under the jurisdiction of the Communist Party, Provisional. This party at one point claimed that it would start the worker's revolution to take over the government and empower the workers. Although the party has never constituted a notable threat, there is some evidence that paramilitary training took place at the highest levels of the organization during the early 1980s.
Assistant Professor of Biology Nancy Roseman's best friend, while a senior at Smith College in 1980, was recruited into NATLFED through work with WMLA. Roseman recounted how her friend was trained in military operations by the cult: "Here's this woman who spent most of her time tending her plants telling me things she learned like, 'You should use a blunt knife rather that a sharp knife because a dull blade hurts more,' and, 'American weapons are less desirable because they overheat.'"
Today, it appears as though the organization has abandoned its claims of starting the revolution.
According to Kling, NATLFED now tells its members that its role is to sit, wait and prepare for the revolution.
According to Lalich, this kind of "hope around the corner" dogma is typical of political cults.
Within NATLFED, Perente developed a highly structured, authoritarian hierarchy. Perente himself sat at the top of the hierarchy, and his word was law. Until his death in March of this year, Perente's commanding personality was the basis around which the cult was centered. Now, it appears that a small group of Perente's closest associates run the organization.
According to FBI records, at the lowest level of the organization are the members, who for the most part are people who happened to sign one of the volumes of lists generated by the NATLFED entities. Above the members in the hierarchy are the day to day volunteers. The part-time or "tabular" volunteers participate in fundraising and canvassing with the local organizations and are completely unaware of the greater party. The "viable" volunteers are those who have begun to commit more of their time. Viable volunteers are pressured to abandon their ties with the outside world (school, profession, family, etc.) and come to work full time for the organization. At this point, serious indoctrination (what one ex-member called "mild brainwashing") begins.
The cadre sit above the volunteers. Cadre also come in the "viable" and "tabular" varieties. They are essentially full-time, heavily indoctrinated members. They are fully committed to the organization and generally devote 18-20 hours a day, seven days a week to work. Generally, cadre members can think only in terms of the dogma of the organization and will only very rarely question the policies of the organization.
One striking example of the blind discipline of the cadre members is the example of four lawyers who were tried in 1984 for extorting money from a former member. The lawyers defended themselves, but according to a woman close to NATLFED leadership, every action they took in court was strictly controlled by Perente. At one point. they received orders stating "You don't use critical analysis. Do it the way you're told, even if you think it's wrong. . . . You have one opinion -- that's the one you're told to have by your ordinate." Faced with a choice between putting up an effective defense and following every one of Perente's orders, the lawyers followed orders and were all convicted.
The highest level of organization is the inner party. Within this level was the further subdivision of the Military Fraction (MF). This was the paramilitary elite of the organization. It is no longer clear whether the MF still exists.
Powerless by Choice
According to Berlet, the entire organization, from the national headquarters to the front groups, exists essentially for its own self-perpetuation. "The organization is a top down authoritarian hierarchy. The entire organization exists for the benefit of the leaders. . . . This cult is like an onion. It's a series of layers which you can peel back until you get to the core. But none of the outer layers know what's going on in the inner layers of the organization."
Kelley said that this secretive structure is typical of political cults. "They are like a lot of other cultic organizations based on a charismatic leader who controlled through mental or physical force, control through manipulation lying about what the organization is. This hidden agenda is a hallmark of a cultic system. There is leadership at the top who doesn't let the membership know what the organization is about, Kelley said.
According to several sources, the very upper levels of NATLFED membership neither believe in nor want the "revolution." The entire dogma of a communist revolution appears to be a hoax given the appearance of reality to keep up the interest and passion of those members who believe they are going to be pmt of a new order.
"The leadership perpetuates the vision of the founder. It exists for its own ends," Kelly said.
Berlet indicated that those in the highest positions in the cult are perfectly aware that there is no revolution in the works.
In fact, it appears that NATLFED is actually deliberately run in a way which precludes the attainment of its own goals. According to a woman close to the leadership, entity liaisons at the national headquarters construct their orders in such a may that the entity leaders think that they are trying to organize workers, but so that such organization is actually impossible. "We can't tell Ed that we don't actually want him helping [the workers] form their own independent labor organization because it's a security violation. . . . But we have to make sure this doesn't happen, so we tell him we want them to join a mutual benefit association within themselves. . . . It's all fuzziness and duplicity," she said.
Kelley said that the real-life powerlessness of NATLFED is powerlessness by choice. He told the story of a woman who was told to carry out orders that the leadership knew would fail. They give the orders anyway because it gave the membership faith in the goals of the organization. Failure convinced the members that they were struggling against the world to achieve their goals. "They [the organizers] really don't think they going to be able to accomplish a whole lot, the goal is to keep the organization going and together," Kelley said.