Western Mass. Labor Action: Its Veneer of Good Masks a Hidden Agenda

The Williams Record/October 3, 1995
By Lisi de Bourbon

Williamstown, MA -- When Jennifer Kling signed up last fall at a Williams College community service fair to volunteer part-time with Western Mass. Labor Action on Pittsfield's West Side, the last place she thought she would wind up was in a cramped Brooklyn apartment house, devoting her life to an underground political group.

After accepting an offer from Western Mass. Labor Action to help the poor on a full-time basis, Kling dropped out of the prestigious school shortly before finals during her sophomore year and headed for the Brooklyn headquarters of the National Labor Federation. It is WMLA's leftist parent organization, a group that once pushed for an armed revolution against the United States.

"Kafka-esque Hell"

But instead of helping the working poor, Kling spent her "time listening to mind-numbing lectures that started as late as midnight and lasted as long as 18 hours."

Deprived of sleep and given limited contact with her friends and family, Kling was confined to what one cult expert told The Williams Record was a "Kafka-esque hell of pointless activity." The college newspaper did on investigative report on the situation Oct. 3.

Bored and in need of medical attention, Kling quit the organization two months later, fleeing in the middle of the night when no one could stop her.

Kling is one of three students who have left Williams in the last 10 years to dedicate their lives to WMLA or one of the National Labor Federation's 41 affiliates across the country.

In an investigation this summer, Monica R. Martinez, assistant dean of students, learned that WMLA and the National Labor Federation are creations of the Communist Party USA, Provisional, a peculiar cadre that practices an unorthodox brand of Marxism. It is not affiliated with the regular Communist Party.

"They justified their actions with cultic practices in a way that would horrify most leftists," said one former member who spoke to the Eagle on condition of anonymity.

While the college has no plans to prevent WMLA or its operations maoager, Edward W. Coffin Jr., from coming to campus to recruit volunteers, Martinez said she has spoken to some students who are currently involved to ensure they understand the relationship between the groups.

"It's important to provide the information we have and at that point, [the students] can make their own choice," she said. "We're not saying, 'Don't do this or don't do that.' My concern is that they're not who they say they are." In addition to recruiting members from the ivy-covered halls of Williams, WMLA has been knocking on doors of modest row houses in Adams and working supermarket entrances in North Adams and Pittsfield.

In Pittsfield since 1977

Established in Adams in 1975 by Peggy Uman of Readsboro, Vt., and moved two years later to its present dingy storefront office on Columbus Avenue, WMLA has operated as an alternative to traditional social service agencies and private charities.

The group has attracted members with a promise of food, fuel, clothing and medical and legal assistance in exchange for 62 cents a month and some volunteer work.

Uman said this week that she founded the group because she had been involved with the Eastern Farm Workers Association, formed on Long Island in 1972 by Eugenio Perente-Ramos. The same year, Perente-Ramos, a shadowy figure on the leftist fringe, began the National Labor Federation and served as its leader until his death in March.

"I was sympathetic with people who were working people and I was doing what I thought was the right thing," she said, declining to elaborate.

Despite her conviction, Uman left the group about, five years ago following a series of personal tragedies and became a born-again Christian.

Without being specific, she acknowledged that WMLA was a very structured political organization and said there was a lot of "accountability and reporting." She did not say to whom.

"Sacrificial Thing"

"It was a blood and guts sacrificial thing," she said. "I'm glad to be free of it. But I thought it was doing a lot of good."

Ironically, Uman is still listed as president of the WMLA on the organization's letterhead.

The Eagle could not arrange an interview with Coffin for this article. The Eagle did an expose of the group in 198[4].

"I have been out of the office all day on one thing or another; what with heating season starting, we are jammed with many requests for fuel (wood) and utility advocacy against the relentless WMECO, for folks having trouble making their payments," he said in a faxed note.

Whether or not WMLA has made a substantive dent in poverty in Berkshire County is open to debate among local social service agencies. Many representatives of those organizations said they have heard very little about WMLA and few, if any, have collaborated with the group on projects to help the poor.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one human services professional said that he did not hold WMLA in very high regard.

"I won't refer anyone there and will never refer anyone there because as far as I know, they don't do anything," he said.

Daniel Dillon, president of Central Berkshire United Way, also said he is unfamiliar with WMLA and that he has had only one encounter with the organization.

This May the United Way coordinated a massive food drive with the Pittsfield postal workers, who collected canned goods and other non-perishables from city residents. The food was taken to the post office, where local social service agencies were invited to retrieve it for their clients.

Dillon said Coffin and several members helped themselves to a disproportionate amount of the food.

"I'm not condemning Ed, but he showed up this year and took load after load," he said. "I don't know who they feed or where they distribute that food." According to ex-volunteers, some of the food is given to those who request it. But most of it lies around the office and is eaten by the members themselves.

One ex-volunteer, who asked that her name be withheld, said she was appalled by manner in which the food was handled and the filthy condition of WMLA's quarters.

"I just couldn't take it anymore, the place was just a mess," she said, adding that cats were allowed to roam freely among loaves of Italian bread that were donated to WMLA by local bakeries.

The woman, who lives in Pittsfield, said she became a member when her family was running low on firewood and couldn't afford to buy any. She said she also received some juice and other items. Later that year, she decided to volunteer because WMLA gave her the wood.

In addition to collecting food and clothing, WMLA solicits money from local businesses and residents.

Community Support

Its newsletter, Western Massachusetts Alliance News, is filled with advertisements from auto repair shops, plumbers and other small businesses from a broad spectrum of Northern and Central Berkshire communities.

None of the advertisers interviewed were familiar with WMLA's reputation or its affiliation with the National Labor Federation.

But all of them said the organization struck them as one that genuinely wants to hclp needy people.

"They call me four times a year trying to get extra money or repairs, which I don't do, but I give them $25, $50, $100 a year," said Bill Kirpens, owner of Bill's Automotive on Curtis Street in Pittsfield. "They were not very aggressive; I never felt they wanted me to join. They were no more aggressive than the local fire departments, police departments or the Veterans of Foreign Wars."

But when the recruiters set up a table for a few days this month and last month on Williams' campus seeking money and volunteers, some students objected to their heavy-handed solicitation tactics.

Guilt Trip

Record editor-in-chief Joshua Resnick, author of the Williams article, said the recruiters played on the students' guilt in their efforts to extract their donations and time.

"I encountered people who said the recruiters would yell things like, 'You don't care anymore,' 'You have this unearned privilege,' and 'The plight of the working man is your responsibility,'" Resnick said, adding that they managed to sign up at least 20 students.

Former members and some human service providers say Coffin is dedicated to the cause of helping the poor. One ex-volunteer said he doubted that Coffin receives a paycheck and that he has to skim a portion of the money be collects from donors to eke out a living while sending funds to headquarters.

A couple of volunteers said he does not have his own home and that they think he lives in WMLA's cluttered office.

Resnick said he could understand how students and volunteers could succumb to Coffin's entreaties to join WMLA.

"His rhetoric is unbelievable and his tactics are aggressive. He can talk for hours," Resnick said.

In an editorial in last week's Record, Resnick blasted two faculty members for inviting Coffin into their classrooms to address students, many of whom are freshmen. Bringing him in lent WMLA an air of legitimacy, he argued, and allowing Coffin to pass around a sign-up sheet was "incredibly irresponsible."

Michael Samson, an assistant professor of economics, and Alex W. Willingham, a professor of political science, said in telephone interviews this week they have both asked Coffin to talk to students in their introductory classes about the difficulties of living in the Berkshires on a minimum wage salary. In both classes he passed around sign-up sheets.

Both said they were unfamiliar with WMLA's ties to the National Labor Federation until reading Resnick's article.

Samson contended that any skepticism generated by WMLA stems from a conflict between Coffin's values and those embraced by the mainstream. Coffin, he said, espouses beliefs that do not jibe with the American free market system.

"His values are at odds with that and that's a factor with people calling this a cult," Samson said. "We don't say Wall Street firms shouldn't recruit at Williams because the popular perception is that a job from a Wall Street firm is a good job to take. Yet adopting self-imposed poverty is not prestigious."

Samson said he has canvassed neighborhoods in Adams with Coffin and has seen sign up volunteers and distribute wood and food to the working poor. Last October, he said he attended a Halloween party given by WMLA at the Adams Youth Center on Park Street that was a success and drew about 50.

Although Samson said the event was free to anyone who wished to attend, an Adams woman said this week in a telephone interview that her mother bought four tickets at $2 apiece from an elderly woman who sold them to her a few days before the party.

The woman's mother gave her the tickets so she could bring her three children to the event. But the party turned out to be a total flop, said the woman, who asked not to be identified.

No Costumes, No Games

"I was so uncomfortable, even though it sounded like it could be a great time," she said. "No one was wearing costumes, there were no games, there was no candy and not a lot of people were there. It was definitely not a party."

But Samson insisted it was a great party and that everyone had a good time.

Jordan Tama joined WMLA a year ago after Coffin appeared in one of Samson's classes. Tama, then a freshman, along with three other students, were deployed in the less-affluent neighborhoods of Adams and North Adams and went door to door, offering to lend a helping hand to those who needed one.

Accompanied by Coffin Tama said the students made the pitch about the food, fuel, clothing, and medical and legal assistance to those who opened their doors.

"I liked doing it for a while," said Tama, who is no longer a member. "I enjoyed it because it was a way to get involved with a community other than Williams."

As the year went on, Coffin made more demands on the students' time and finally pressed them to spend a night with him last winter at WMLA's offices to help put out the monthly newsletter.

But instead of writing and editing stories or laying out pages, the students spent most of the night listening to Coffin pontificate about the history of labor in America and the history of his organization.

Indoctrination Session

"He spent most of his time on attempted indoctrination," said Tama. "I had the impression he was Marxist or communist in ideology, but he purposely stayed away from those words for fear of scaring us off because of the stigma attached to them."

He eventually surmised the WMLA wanted him not only to help the poor, but to become part of the National Labor Federation's inner core to revolutionize this country's socioeconomic and political structure. In fact, Tama, a Brooklyn native, said that when he went home for Thanksgiving break last year, he received a phone call on Thanksgiving day from one of the volunteers from the Women's Press Collective. Affiliated with the National Labor Federation, the group also has offices in Brooklyn.

When he was a part-time volunteer, Tama said he saw the poor receive the food, fuel and clothing but never saw them receive the medical or legal services.

"He made promises to people when they'd never get anything out of the organization," Tama said.

Moreover, he said Coffin wasn't necessarily up front about the real mission of WMLA and its parent organization.

"My main feeling is the problem I have with WMLA is not related to WMLA itself, but to the fact it's a front for the national organization and to the fact is that Ed wasn't fully open in terms of telling us what went on down there particularly with Jen [Kling]," he said.

Although Kling, who is living in the Midwest, managed to wrest herself from the National Labor Federation, students from other colleges have not been as lucky. And for their parents, the anguish is unbearable and the pain insurmountable.

Two Mothers' Anguish

Two mothers with students in affiliates of the National Labor Federation were so frightened about losing their daughters forever that they did not want to reveal their names or addresses. Both said they feared that if their daughters found out they spoke publicly about them, the daughter could get so upset they would never return home.

Both women suspect that members of the organization screen the letters they mail to their daughters. Sometimes the daughters don't receive their letters at all. And it's very difficult to get in touch with them by telephone, the women said.

Even more distressing, the mothers are not allowed to be alone with them during visits and the women are not permitted to take their children outside the headquarters.

"It's like having somebody in jail with an intermediate sentence, but hasn't committed any crime," said one of the women.

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