Uncovering the Eastern Service Workers Association
By Nate Leskovic
Fall was descending, and as I bundled up and left the Jamaica Plain Harvest Co-op I was greeted with another reminder of the season. “KeySpan made $43 million last year. Do you know how many people in Boston won’t be able to afford heat this winter?”
They told me.
“Are you tired of being burdened by student loans when the companies that provide them make millions?”
“Shouldn’t everyone have access to healthcare and the basic necessities of life?”
It seemed I was in solidarity with the people at the table on the sidewalk. I read their flyers and chatted some more—and they made sense. They asked me to sign up, which I thought seemed a bit premature. I told them I’d think about it. Then I mentioned I was a writer and thought they might be a good story.
Silence. They turned their back to me. Strange.
They are the Eastern Service Workers Association (ESWA), described on their flyer as a “free and voluntary unincorporated membership association joining together service workers, seasonal, temporary, and part-time workers and other low-income workers and their families with students, professionals, homemakers, clergy and business owners to fight to improve living and working conditions.”
According to ESWA, they do not represent workers in negotiation with their employers, but use an 11-Point Benefit Program to “aid members in obtaining what is rightfully theirs in a context that promotes their best interests on all levels.”
During my initial conversation I learned they do not use the Internet, but I decided to check them out online anyways. I wanted to know more, and I sensed something was up. I was immediately inundated by exposes, cult watch lists and a Boston Indymedia thread warning potential recruits to stay away from their “Stalinist” tactics. There was a story here, though perhaps a different one than I initially thought.
For ESWA to have existed in Boston since the 1970s, as they stated, they couldn’t be a complete scam, could they? I did not want to blindly trust the Internet. Unfortunately, what I read claimed they were unreceptive to reporters. Instead of risking a bland interview, some rhetoric and the door, I decided I would volunteer and see firsthand what the group does. I could be seen as a potential
recruit, not just someone to impress with public relations tactics.
ESWA is a front group for the National Labor Federation (NATLFED). Other ESWA’s exist in cities such as Rochester (NY), Trenton (NJ), and Philadelphia. In addition, there are NATLFED “entities” around the country with different names, such as the Eastern Farm Workers Association, California Homemakers Association, Coalition of Concerned Medical Professionals and the Midwest Workers Association. They all basically use the same methods of “strategic organizing,” and they all follow instruction from NATLFED headquarters in Brooklyn.
NATLFED began with a man named Gino Perente, whose real name is actually William Doeden. Doeden was a radical, active in San Francisco from the late 1960s through the early 1970s. He organized a group called the Liberation Army of Revolutionary Group Organizations (LARGO) that
actually declared war against the state of California in 1970.
After his revolution failed, Doeden disappeared to avoid child support payments and reappeared in 1972 as Gino Perente. He was now in New York, working for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. His stint with Chavez was brief, but with the knowledge gained he founded the Eastern Farm Workers Association in Suffolk County on Long Island. This initial success organizing workers outside of official labor unions still serves as the historical basis for NATLFED’s current activities.
During the 1970s, NATLFED grew and established around 20 entities throughout the country. Under the direction of Perente, it developed a political philosophy based on Marx, Lenin and Stalin and began using a highly structured and centralized power system to ensure control of each entity and its volunteers. The strategy for organizing and recruiting new members is dictated by a copyrighted document compiled in 1973, called “The Essential Organizer.” NATLFED’s methods never vary from this codified plan. The top leaders of NATLFED in Brooklyn are members of the Provisional Communist Party, which is considered clandestine.
Perente, who died in 1995, was your stereotypical cult leader. Aside from assuming a Latino identity—probably to more easily suggest parallels between him, Chavez and Latin American revolutionaries—he is consistently described as a con-artist, alcoholic, drug addict and sexual predator. He is remembered for delivering rambling speeches late into the night, being constantly surrounded by followers who attended to his needs, as well as abusing his followers mentally, verbally and sometimes physically. In short, he was the stereotypical David Koresh or Jim Jones. In its early history, NATLFED was on a trajectory for revolution and set 1984 for its launch.
Obviously, it never happened. The Brooklyn headquarters was raided by the FBI soon after, followed by some legal problems, but the group
survived. They were again raided by the NYPD in 1996, but charges were eventually cleared because of illegal search procedures. It was not a major setback either.
NATLFED is basically harmless in terms of insurrection potential. If discussed at all, the concept of revolution is used mainly to instill a sense of purpose and sincerity among its most hardcore followers. NATLFED is not actively planning rebellion, and would not have the resources to begin.
Since Perente’s death, Margaret Ribar has taken control of NATLFED’s National Office Central in Brooklyn. The power structure has remained intact, the organizing work continues, but observers say the more militant edge provided by the presence of Perente seems to have subsided. NATLFED appears to exist mainly to continue its existence—with a somewhat successful community service mission that never really expands.
I write about NATLFED with a degree of fogginess because of the extreme secrecy inherent in the organization. There is also a pervasive paranoia that limits sources. Jeff Whitnack, former full-time volunteer and author of a 1984 expose, told me at one point he had an entire NATLFED legal team harassing him.
Members were only willing to discuss community service. As a result, description of NATLFED requires a synthesis of writings, recollections from past volunteers who often wish to remain anonymous, and some Internet consensus. Most of these sources describe the more shady side of NATLFED operations—but it does do positive work.
Each NATLFED entity sets up what they call a “mutual benefits association” in order to provide services to its members. This is what ESWA does out of their office at 48 Blue Hill Ave. in Roxbury. Benefits distributed include food, dental care, legal advocacy and clothing. They solicit members, local organizations, businesses, lawyers, medical professionals and volunteers to donate services and goods.
I spent three days volunteering with ESWA and took part in some rewarding activity. On my first day, I helped out at a holiday party thrown for its members using donated space in a neighborhood church. I saw families enjoying an enormous meal of donated food, parents grateful to receive donated toys and children dancing to live music and playing with Santa.
During my second day I distributed food. ESWA had secured and sorted items to provide a box or bag for almost 100 families. They had an entire rental truck filled with the goods and I loaded up my car and dropped it off on doorsteps. While I was working, they were able to find a place to stay for a victim of domestic abuse and her child, and got heat turned on for a struggling family.
On my third day I intended to see the advocacy work ESWA was doing for its members, but I soon ended up alone in a room with a full-time volunteer. Surprise! I was being recruited to join ESWA as a full-time, “cadre” member. From my research, I expected this treatment.
ESWA is doing community service work in Boston. Aside from my participation, I spoke with members at the party and they were nothing but grateful. I also spoke with Chris Durkin, Director of Community Relations at Harvest Co-op, and inquired about ESWA recruiting in front of their stores. He sent me even more positive feedback from the community, recommendations he used to justify Harvest’s relationship with ESWA, despite the controversy surrounding it.
However, the service ESWA does is only part of their mission. Some claim it is merely an elaborate NATLFED façade. ESWA and the other NATLFED entities use their benefit program to recruit socially-conscious and charitable young adults into full-time volunteer positions.
Former cadre Whitnack believes by maintaining the pretense of the mutual benefit association, NATLFED entities keep their organization alive, retain high profile members and business partners, and appear like a just another service group.
“They have a ton of doctors and lawyers,” says Whitnack. “The bigger fish, they let them have independence. They don’t want to lie to them. It’s all basically flypaper to suck in new members.”
An anonymous, former full-time volunteer who NATLFED convinced to drop out of college about ten years ago – I’ll call him Bob—explained his feelings about this tactic: “It’s my understanding the number one thing they want is not to help poor or increase donations. The number one thing they want is to recruit more members that will allow them to continue their organization, just to keep it going. New organizers come so terribly slowly that they have to reach thousands to get one to be full-time.”
These cadre positions are famous for their 16- to 18-hour work days, demanded seven days a week. The schedule naturally results in loss of contact with family and friends. Recruits are required to quit their jobs and move out of their homes. Cadre do not receive pay and NATLFED provides them with donated food and shelter.
“These are the pushiest people you will ever volunteer for,” warns Bob. “They will take everything that you give them and ask you for more, and if you surrender your independence to them, they will make it very painful for you to reclaim it.”
When Bob became cadre, he was given a memo from NATLFED headquarters. “Participation will only be considered on a full-time basis,” it said. “That means 24 hours/day, 365 days/yr. You may be as religious as you want, but church attendance is not part of the program for professional revolutionary. Visits to close friends/family in the
hospital may be permitted on request and with
NATLFED recruitment begins with tabling at strategic locations, such as college campuses or summer festivals, or through door-to-door canvassing in low-income neighborhoods. On my first day I participated in a canvass and saw a few people sign up. The pitch is enticing to anyone facing daily hardship or those with a social conscience:
“Too many of us, for too long, have suffered from low-paying jobs with no benefits…We keep finding that minimum wage is our maximum wage…ESWA joins together those who realize that as long as any of us are left behind in poverty, none of us are safe…We know that we need an organization with no strings attached to fight to end our second-class status…ESWA is that organization and invites you to sign-up as a member today!”
To join, you are only asked to pay $0.62 a month! If you can’t afford that (!), you don’t even have to. The fee is symbolic of the hourly wage earned by the first workers organized by Perente. If you agree to join or volunteer, ESWA asks for your phone number. That is what they really want.
Once they have your number, you will
continuously receive calls regarding your participation. “Can you volunteer for this event? When are you coming next? Can we set up a more
permanent schedule? We need your help to make a difference!”
ESWA refers to this tactic as “arm’s-length systemic organizing,” and it made me extremely thankful to have caller ID on my phone. When I asked about the strategy, they explained they could more easily secure commitments from people by phone. I also discovered getting people within “arm’s length” ensures opportunity for NATLFED philosophy indoctrination.
During my limited time with ESWA, I was constantly bombarded with discussion-less canned rhetoric. The ideas were obviously part of the “party line,” and each cadre used the same lingo and catch phrases. As with the pitch, the orientation and lessons I witnessed were read mostly verbatim from a written text. While talking about potential opponents during one lecture, a full-time volunteer apologized for the language—blaming it on “70s humor”—but still recited, “You better run motherfucker! We’re coming after your mother!”
Another strategy designed specifically to ensnare was the frequent persuading to increase the time you devote to ESWA. Each time I showed up, as well as during each phone call I actually answered, I was always questioned about my participation. Each NATLFED recruit is designated a tabular volunteer or a viable volunteer. This is determined through their analysis of your potential to become full-time, usually done with informal chats and more formal interviews. Most are set aside as unlikely to become a cadre member, such as those with families and established careers, but people who have neither—like myself at the time—are targeted.
Once you are singled out, cadre members continuously probe you about your opinions on labor issues, economics and politics. As they delicately weave their ideas into the conversation, they challenge you to defend your participation—or lack thereof—in your previous activism. According to NATLFED cadre, they are the only organization that actually accomplishes anything. They hope you realize you have not been doing enough to make change in this world, and that they have the only effective solution.
“They have the upper hand once they get you in the office,” said Bob. “They try to make you believe there is no plan on the planet that can address the problems of poor people like theirs can…I had a difficult time saying no. When someone says to you, ‘I have given up my job and an ordinary life to pursue the goal of ending world poverty,’ you can’t just look at them in the eye and say no like you can to a salesman…They are genuine, but manipulative to the point that it’s not funny.”
Of course, I was only briefly subjected to these tactics. I had also done my research and could easily spot their subtle techniques. But for someone a bit more naive, a little less confident in their worldview and in a transitional period in their life, I can imagine how the path to full-time NATLFED
The other main technique used to recruit is pure hard work. This involves not only completing the tedious tasks assigned, but continuous busy-work that numbs the mind. By combining a steady stream of rhetoric with never-ending activity, NATLFED attempts to breed pseudo-revolutionary zealot zombies. There was little conversation
within ESWA about anything other than ESWA. If you listen constantly to one philosophy, are provided no opportunity to discuss and constantly face a guilt-trip regarding your devotion, you could soon find yourself on the slippery slope
When distributing food, I chatted with a member I’ll call Joe. He explained that he joined ESWA because he was going through hard times financially and was about to be evicted. Joe hoped ESWA would help and was working hard in return.
“I don’t think they understand the word volunteer. No one ever works enough for them. They keep calling and asking for more,” he said.
Joe told me he had shown up almost every day for the past few months. Except for some food, he hadn’t received much in benefits. “If they don’t find Joe a place to stay, I’m gone,” he said.
During my volunteer time, neither I nor anyone else was ever allowed to be idle. I was sent to the truck more than once to count the number of food boxes inside, when everyone already knew the number. While working at the holiday party I was constantly asked what I was doing and barely had an opportunity to chat with the attendees. In the office I was given paperwork to check and when it was done I had to check it again. I witnessed one cadre member moving swiftly around the office for 15 minutes. However, I saw he was only shuffling the same papers from one binder to another, to a different cabinet, back to another binder, into another cabinet….
I was further convinced that their tactics were less than honest when I made my final phone call to ESWA. Phyllis Kornblum, organizing director and one of four full-time cadre, appeared quiet, calm and determined during my volunteer work. She, like the others, was warm, kind, and caring in a somewhat unemotional way. I was expecting some degree of anger when I revealed I was no longer interested in volunteering with the group—and that instead I was planning on writing about them—but I was not prepared for the extreme change in character she displayed. Nor did I think she would still attempt to recruit me.
I explained to her that I had witnessed some of the community service ESWA does, but that I had spoken with former cadre and done research which led me to believe ESWA—along with NATLFED—was more than just a mutual benefits association. I explained the accusations to her, and I could soon tell she was trained for this situation. Kornblum immediately became hostile and confronted me.
“We’re talking about people whose lives are on the line…If you were really interested and were really concerned, you would spend more time with us…How many canvasses have you been on? How many advocacy sessions have you done?...If you are interested in helping out, I’d be happy to talk with you…What are you doing to help people?”
I reminded her again that I did spend time volunteering, and I saw the good they were doing for the community, but that I wanted to discuss other aspects of the group. Kornblum ignored my request once again and asked me to spend more time volunteering. It was as if she was reading from a script on dealing with anyone who asks too many questions: play the guilt trip; get them to come back; hope they will eventually succumb.
“I know about all the crap that is said about us,” said Kornblum. “It’s from people who aren’t doing jack shit. If you want to take that shit and you want to buy it, go ahead. If you want to talk to real
people who are doing things to help others than you can talk to us.”
Along with their recruiting practices, the inherent secrecy and deception of NATLFED raises concern. As my final conversation with Kornblum showed, the cadre of ESWA were unwilling to discuss connections with NATLFED when I asked—let alone any long-term strategies for change beyond the mutual benefits association. They either
deflected my questions or gave me some vague, idealistic phrase.
“We’re building a voice to stop poverty conditions,” they said. “Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and Communists are all members of ESWA. We’re a collective, organizing for systemic change. We are creating a force to reckon with.”
Why would a group working to improve the lives of the underprivileged withhold their true identity and philosophy from the very people they are organizing to accomplish this? Was this secrecy another form of control?
Former cadre Whitnack sees the leadership as inherently dishonest. “Fidel never lied about his goals,” he says. “NATLFED is not trying to hide from the government, but it is hiding from the public and its own members.”
NATLFED assumes your everyday tabular volunteer has no need to know about revolutionary ideas. In fact it may only serve to alienate them, thereby losing their contributions to the mutual benefits association. However, once a viable volunteer is brought to the full-time cadre level, revealing the secrets and mythical ties to past revolutionary movements NATLFED has could bolster their loyalty. Being an instrumental part of an underground club, especially one that is going to “change the world,” could be very enticing.
“If you never tell people what your real philosophy is until they agree to it,” writes one anonymous former full-time volunteer online, “then you will never have to deal with criticism from people who disagree with you.”
This secrecy also pertains to finances. NATLFED entities are not charities and are therefore not required to report anything publicly. This means no one can have any definitive knowledge of what is donated or distributed. It also means no one knows how much is siphoned off to the cadre, or to NATLFED headquarters.
ESWA has conspicuously stayed under the radar in Boston. For a group that has been in existence since 1977 and claims to have the only proven, effective method of organizing, it has failed to expand beyond its small benefit program. When asked about membership numbers, ESWA can only give a figure of some 20,000 people who have signed up since its inception. They have no idea how many of these are active members.
I did a survey of various neighborhood groups in Boston, such as the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, La Alianza Hispana, the Urban League, Action for Boston Community Development, the Cape Verdean Community UNIDO, and others. The organizations had either no knowledge of ESWA or they had heard limited anecdotes regarding its community service work. City Councilor Chuck Turner knew little and former Councilor Felix
Arroyo’s office did not know the group at all. If ESWA was making an impact in Boston’s urban communities, one might suspect they would be better known.
When I asked ESWA what groups they collaborated with, they claimed it was futile to work with or within any existing strategies. Former cadre Bob described their philosophy: “The system cannot be fixed and the only thing you can do is work with us. If you think you know differently, you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.”
Perhaps NATLFED desires only enough success to keep itself alive and keep its leaders in power. If NATLFED entities were to enjoy significant accomplishments, it would inevitably result in changes to the power dynamic of its structure. Those who succeed would expect to gain more control over operations, which would dilute the power of the established leadership.
Robin Fahlberg, who volunteered full-time for 14 years beginning in 1979, believes this to be the case. “There is some draw into believing that you are a big revolutionary,” she says. “As long as the methodology never proves you wrong, as long as you never get past step one, you never fail. Here are people who want other people to look at them as if they were gods. It doesn’t matter what they accomplish, as long as they have people following them in admiration.”
Success would ultimately bring NATLFED closer to their purported goal of permanent societal change or—gulp—revolution. Some believe the leadership actually engages in deliberate sabotage to prevent disruption of the status quo.
“I was totally dependent on the national organization for instruction,” says Fahlberg. “As I became more experienced I began to question them, but experienced a lot of mental and verbal abuse. I had to call in to national every night, and if I didn’t do enough or get the right results I would get screamed at…. For one week we would do a canvass campaign. If you kept going on it you could recruit people. Then once it started going, you had to stop and move to a different strategy. There was no continuity in directions.”
“There had to be a party with discipline,” she says. “So you took orders. Eventually they hope you will stop trying or caring, and just accept what comes down from above. After a period of time in a community you should start to build, and that has never happened with any of the NATLFED
She also described how headquarters would deliberately tell other cadre in her entity conflicting information, essentially pitting one against the other. “At first I thought it was ineffectiveness and bureaucratic problems,” she said. “Then I found out that the whole thing was purposeful.”
This analysis of NATLFED tactics leads to the cult question. What else can you call a self-perpetuating, yet never advancing organization that controls its members through a highly secretive and structured pattern of power? A quick glance at cult watch lists finds NATLFED right up there with the Moonies and the LaRouchies.
But who’s to say one shouldn’t get involved with an organization that does actual community service, however small its impact? Why should one be discouraged from participating if they feel they are helping to make the world a better place?
An anonymous post on Boston Indymedia wrote, “For two years I worked my butt off and was
isolated from my friends and family—but… certainly no harder than the cadre of other organizations who are passionately serious about their agenda. The articles and exposes fail to mention that the Catholic Church has cadre, the Democratic and Republican parties have their cadre who sleep in the office…Stockbrokers work
unbelievably long hours.”
The Boston College PULSE Program for Service Learning decided its students should not work with ESWA. Director Dave McMenamin explained that a few students volunteered during the 2004-05 school year, but discontinued their relationship with ESWA the following year.
“I [initially] imposed a condition,” said McMenamin. “If we were going to offer them as a service site, I demanded that [students] would not be pressured for time beyond the time required by our program. I did not want our students canvassing in neighborhoods that weren’t theirs either. They wanted to push the students to canvass. They were asked continually to participate more. They experienced pressure.”
McMenamin mentioned one of his students, who was a local resident, had the sense ESWA did little to benefit the community. “There was just enough to make me wary,” he says. “I didn’t feel like I could trust them.”
Former full-time volunteer Fahlberg says she is still dealing with the effects of NATLFED. Until recently, she had repressed all memories of her time with the group and it took work with a therapist to move on and speak about it. “When I left, even though I knew intellectually that no one would come after me, I still looked over my shoulder,” she says. “The words ‘Communist Party Provisional’ would put me into a physical panic attack.”
Those who oppose NATLFED claim the positives do not outweigh the toll it takes on its volunteers. “Unfortunately it results in burning out people,” says Fahlberg. “They get sucked into a black hole and then they don’t participate in activism even if they get out.”
“I think it’s a real tragedy,” says Whitnack. “The people that join are some of the best humanity has. When you look at all the people and all the years, it does a great harm to the progressive movement and takes away a lot of potential strength.”
“There is a lot to be commended in what they are doing,” says Bob. “But it comes at a cost to the personalities of the volunteers. They need to be crushed to keep the continuance and structure of the organization. I really couldn’t stand it. I just hated my existence and left.”
Chip Berlet, who works for Political Research Associates in Somerville and studies authoritarian movements in the states, also agrees with this analysis: “I continue to feel that the negative aspects [of NATLFED] outweigh the positive aspects. This is a group which continues to misrepresent its history and effectiveness. They never seem to do anything other than parallel the work of existing service organizations, and they have never been able to show seriously that they can provide
anything that is different or better. What’s the point? People can be a part of existing effective groups. They are a tiny group with almost no impact and a long history of spending a lot of energy in a relatively nonproductive way. The only point is to
continue the existence of a group founded by a charlatan.”
No doubt, ESWA does assist the underprivileged in Boston. You can see it and they will tell you all about it, but there is much more they won’t say.
Author’s note: This piece was written more than a year ago, though never published due to various reasons. While ESWA may have changed its ways since, it is highly doubtful when considering the history of the group. I recently witnessed some of its members outside the J.P. Harvest Co-op spewing their same-old shtick.
|A storefront for the group. Photo by waving at you.|
Other articles by Nate Leskovic.
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