Labor Group: Saga of a Cult

East Hampton Star/September 18, 1986
By Uri Berliner

On Saturday in Bridgehampton the controversial Eastern Farm Workers Association will profit from an auction of art donated by esteemed painters and sculptors including Elaine and Willem de Kooning and William King. In the view of a wide range of academics, journalists, clergy, and former members interviewed by the Star, the proceeds will not benefit the migrant poor so much as a shadowy cult-like entity whose inner circle talks of imminent world revolution and keeps unknowing volunteers in the dark about the group's true aims.

In an article in the Star several weeks ago, critics of the Farm Workers disputed the group's membership figures (upwards of 6,000), countered claims that it provides medical services and legal assistance to farmworkers, and criticized its refusal to release financial statements. It was also noted that the group is one of 41 "mutual benefit associations" of the National Labor Federation, an organization boasting 635,000 members which reputedly represents the disenfranchised and chronically poor. Last month, a woman named Viola Mitchell was introduced at a Farm Workers' dinner as the director of the National Labor Federation. She said the organization's goal was to "end the conditions that cause poverty," but refused to answer any other questions from the press, declaring that they were welcome to learn more if they first volunteered to work for the organization.

Declared Revolution

The National Labor Federation was founded in 1972 by a charismatic former Shakespearean actor named Eugenio Perente and it has been tightly under his control ever since. A 1972 article in the Star on the formation of the Eastern Farmworkers quotes one source describing Mr. Perente's "deep, dark eyes that pierced across the room as he talked about the passion and death of the seasonal farmworker on Long Island." Born Gerald Doeden, Mr. Perente grew up in northern California and was involved in Bay Area radical politics in the 1960s. Out of his Little Red Bookstore in San Francisco he organized a brigade called the Liberation Army Revolutionary Group, which threatened widespread death and destruction and once declared war against the State of California. In one flyer, Mr. Perente announced "All citizens are hereby notified that a state of Revolution shall begin as of March 15, 1970." No attacks were carried out, but, according to those who have followed his career, Mr. Perente has been threatening mass upheavals on the Ides of March ever since.


After the brigade fizzled out, Mr Perente, claiming to be a Mexican-American and concealing his Norwegian-American parentage, worked in some capacity for Cesar Chavez's United Farmworkers. He left that group in bad standing over an apparent policy dispute.

In 1973, according to an article in Public Eye, a political journal published by the National Lawyers Guild, Mr. Perente became involved in a Lyndon LaRouche front group in Philadelphia called the National Unemployed and Welfare Rights Organization. Like the National Labor Federation, it claimed to represent the dispossessed. Mr. LaRouche, formerly an avowed Marxist, has in the past decade shifted dramatically to the right, denouncing Walter Mondale as a KGB agent, Queen Elizabeth as a drug smuggler, and most recently forcing a Statewide ballot proposition in California which would mandate quarantine for all persons who test positive for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Mr. LaRouche's finances and visibility have grown considerably in recent years and one of his candidates won the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor in Illinois last spring.

Committed Followers

Mr. Perente, meanwhile, is apparently living in relative poverty and obscurity at 1107 Carroll Street in Brooklyn, at headquarters nicknamed "The Cave." His National Labor Federation has had success in recruiting scores of college students, professors, and others to work as organizers. Many devote practically every waking hour to the group's inner circle, called the Communist Party Provisional Wing, although it has no connection to the American Communist Party. On Feb. 17, 1984, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, apparently under the impression that the National Labor Federation was a terrorist unit, raided the Cave looking for weapons. None were found, but the group's files were seized. The raid received little media attention in New York.

Ten days later, Public Eye, while condemning the raid as unconstitutional, distributed a press release claiming the National Labor Federation and Mr. LaRouche's National Democratic Policy Committee systematically "bilked millions from unsuspecting contributors; and use psychologically manipulative techniques to enforce the loyalty of their members."

Dire Warning

The statement said both organizations had "the potential for disintegrating into armed violence, or a situation similar to that which led to the tragic mass suicide at the People's Temple in Jonestown." The former Public Eye editor, Chip Berlet, asked to assess the recent history of both groups in an interview last week, said while Mr. LaRouche had become a powerful force, the National Labor Federation was, in his opinion, basically harmless, except for the toll it exacts on its members. As for links between the two groups, Mr. Berlet, who now directs a research group that monitors racist and extremist organizations, said there were some in the 1970s but those appear to have faded. Dennis King, a freelance journalist who has written about cults and the LaRouche movement for New Republic magazine, said there may still be some trading of information between Mr. Perente and Mr. LaRouche, however, although nothing substantial.

Small Potatoes

He claimed that in 1980 Mr. LaRouche attended a "Communist Party Provisional Wing meeting in California" under the code name Frank, at which he was reported to have spoken about "Fascist organizing techniques." Still, Mr. King considers the Perente group "small potatoes, like the little Jesus cults." He alleged its members live in a fantasy world where their own importance is blown totally out of proportion. He compared Mr. Perente to the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Possessed, a brilliant anarchist who recruits six university disciples by making them believe they are capable of organizing a mass revolution.

Cult Strategy

Reg Oliver, the executive director of the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network, said his group lists the National Labor Federation as a cult because it employs "classic techniques" used by religious sects such as the Moonies and the Hare Krishna movement. "Psychological manipulation is essential," said Mr. Oliver. "They use deception to keep members unaware of true goals. Information is purposefully withheld. Under the guise of having a mission they create an authoritarian environment laced with mythical jargon. The purity of their doctrine is under attack by an evil outside world. There are indications of protein deprivation, according to our files," he said. "Just like the Moonies, but without religion," is how an FBI agent described the group after the raid to Priscilla Cates, the former national director of the Cult Awareness Network. The most disturbing aspect of life for members of the Federation, Mr. Oliver maintained, is the total absence of privacy. "There is constant intrusion and they split people away from family and friends."

Many Supporters

On the East End, where Eastern Farmworkers does grass roots organizing, it is difficult to gauge Mr. Oliver's allegations. The group has many educated and affluent supporters who say it is the single organization. The response to the auction has been generous, with works being offered as well by Robert Dash and other artists. George Plimpton, Robert Gwathmey, Helena Curtis, East Hampton Town Supervisor Judith Hope, and East End County Legislator Tony Bullock are listed as sponsors. In response to the Star's first article, two Southampton residents, Lucille Perlman and Nell Greenfield, wrote letters supporting the organization's work.

Stony Brook Connection

The organization also has had a long-standing relationship with the Social Welfare School at the State University at Stony Brook. The acting dean, Angel Campos, said in an interview last month that six of his student volunteered to work for the group, which he lauded as upholding the "grass roots approach to social work that started with the settlement house movement in Chicago." Another professor at the Stony Brook School of Social Welfare, Lynne Soine, said the School is supportive of the Farmworkers, although field placements of students have ceased because of inadequate supervision. "There's no serious disagreement," she said. "They're providing assistance to the most oppressed part of the population."

Officials from the County Health Department's Office of Migrant Affairs say they have never encountered Farm Workers organizers in migrant camps, nor have they talked to any migrant workers who have received medical care through its benefits program. Association volunteers and supporters have disputed these charges. Ms. Greenfield's letter, in this issue, is on medical services to children.

Dispute Over Services

The Eastern Farm Workers dinner in Hampton Bays last month drew a largely and Hispanic crowd of about 75 or 80. Many of those in attendance said they had received assistance through the organization, but none of over a dozen persons interviewed was presently employed as a farmworker. Professor Richard Cloward of the Columbia University School of Social Work, a specialist in grass roots organizing, said while the group "may do a certain amount of advocacy and health care work, they're not what they say they are. This is largely an underground group." He called the Stony Brook administration "politically naive" not to probe deeply enough to understand the "organization's clandestine elements."

Missing Links

The links between Eastern Farm Workers, which has its offices in Bellport and Riverhead, and the National Labor Federation, are not explicitly explained by organizers. For example, a person handed a flyer in front of an East Hampton supermarket might read about migrant health problems but would have no idea of Mr. Perente's existence or his thoughts.

Diane Ramirez is the "arena operations manager" for Eastern Farm Workers and has been a full-time organizer since 1972. Frances Moulder is former sociology professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey who has been with the group for half a dozen years. They are the two most visible and verbal representatives of the group in the County. When interviewed for the Star's first article neither would openly discuss the National Labor Federation. This reporter, after numerous inquiries, was told for more information he should write to "Dear Sir" at an address he was provided. No telephone number was offered.

Who Gets The Mail?

Nor does the invitation for the art auction make mention of the National Labor Federation. The reply card seeking donations of $10 to $500 lists an entity called the National Equal Justice Association on the return envelope, with a Cadman Plaza Station Post Office box in Brooklyn as an address. EFWA has its offices in Bellport and Riverhead.

One mailing address for the National Labor Federation is also at Cadman Plaza Station, but at a different PO box. The allegations that the organization might intend to use the proceeds, or part of them, to increase the cash flow of Mr. Perente's inner circle could not be checked with Eastern Farm Workers organizers. They did not return phone calls this week. A message left with the National Labor Federation answering service also went unreturned.

Eastern Farm Workers does appear secretive about its finances even with supporters and potential contributors. It is not registered as tax exempt with the State Attorney General's Office or with the Internal Revenue Service and it is not listed as a labor organization with the Federal Justice Department. Last month Ms. Ramirez claimed this was because the group wanted the freedom to "create the type of organization that suits us. I don't think the Government is sympathetic to organize poor people."

Attorney Got Calls

A prominent New York Attorney with a house in East Hampton who has aided in previous fundraising drives said he had received occasional mysterious, urgent appeals from Ms. Ramirez for large sums of money.

"She called and said there was trouble with a rent strike in Brooklyn," said the attorney. "I didn't know what Eastern Farmworkers had to do with Brooklyn."

"It seemed the money that was supposed to be held in escrow by one of the Eastern Farm Workers' lawyers was placed in the wrong account and they bounced the tenants' check. Ramirez asked if I could come up with $20,000 overnight." He did not. Another time, he said his sister also a supporter of fundraising efforts, received a call seeking $25,000 overnight so that the group could post a bond because it wanted to buy its headquarters in Riverhead.

Party Hierarchy

Although the Communist Party Provisional Wing has no known ties to the small American Communist Party or to the Soviet Union, Mr. Perente considers himself a strict disciple of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin.

The bureaucratic organizing techniques are based on the Stalinist model, according to Public Eye. In the outer layer are the members, scattered groups of poor people who are asked to pay 62 cents a month in dues. Next are volunteers, who participate in clothing drives and canvasses of poor neighborhoods.

If volunteers appear promising and respond positively to revolutionary tidbits they may be invited to join "the unit." In the unit there are two levels of "cadre," the first called tabular or blank. A volunteer is blank until making a full-time commitment. After this plunge, he or she is considered cadre "viable."

An example of the organizing strategy can be found in the "Best of the National Labor Federation" calendar. The viable cadre can at anytime be asked to function in another role or location, the calendar says. "The Federation may also suborn viable volunteers' especially needed skills, and any grouping may nominate a viable volunteer to Federation status, subject to consensus of the existing body...or consensus from the nominating loco."

A Volunteer's Story

One who was evidently considered an "independent revisionist" is Mr. Whitnack. While there have been no documented reports of violence against volunteers who try to leave, members live with that fear, Mr. Whitnack wrote for Public Eye in 1984.

"The stick is the physical harm threatened to anyone who would challenge or leave the Provisional Party. Many ex-members go underground and fear for their personal safety." The author himself said he received a direct threat when the Oakland leader warned him, "Whatever you have, you'll lose it." The Provisional Party kept voluminous files not only on its members but on anyone considered a potential enemy, Mr. Whitnack alleged.

Mr. Whitnack, a respiratory therapist who lives in California, said he endured a two-month stint with a National Labor Federation front group in 1981. He had joined the Coalition of Concerned Medical Professionals in Oakland, impressed by its apparent sincerity and activist approach, he explained. In his enthusiasm he dropped out of school and became a full-time National Labor Federation organizer. "They prey on progressive, idealistic people," said Mr. Whitnack in a phone interview. "Their come-on is that they're helping the poor. Who could be against that? Then once you're in they use guilt and fear to break down your ego." Permitted into the select "viable" cadre, Mr. Whitnack said he was out on a grueling schedule.

"We worked about 18 hours a day. Mostly inane tasks. Endless paperwork, canvassing, reading propaganda. Some people were made to listen to endless tapes of Perente's lectures. It was designed to break you down. You go without sleep--four or five hours a night at most. The food is inadequate."

Felt Duped

After two months, fatigued and near nervous collapse, Mr. Whitnack said he bolted, by slipping out of a cadre car and into a subway station. Feeling duped and angry, he spent the next year and nearly $10,000 in travel and telephone bills hoping to peel away the mysterious layers of the National Labor Federation.

Mr. Whitnack wrote of his ordeal in the Summer, 1984, issue of Public Eye.

"I slowly began to suspect that the whole situation was purposefully set up to create a pressure cooker, boot camp type atmosphere where people had neither the physical nor the emotional energy to question their assignments."

He said that while he expressed skepticism about the deadline for revolution (33 months as of 1981) others took it absolutely seriously. He heard one National leader declare: "the 33 month deadline is real. The leadership of this organization has their theoretical and real necks on the line. So if you're just an irregular volunteer on some half-assed schedule -- get real."

Visiting the Cave

Mr. Whitnack wrote he "began to trust nothing and suspect everything regarding the party...I have since become convinced that deception was used to attract me to the National Labor Federation and cultic techniques were used to keep me in. My welfare and destiny were controlled by a group in New York I really knew nothing about other than the lies I had been told. I resolved to find out." On the East Coast, a college professor whose closest friend joined the National Labor Federation without warning one afternoon also embarked on a quest to find out more about the organization.

Over the next two years she visited the Cave half a dozen times. The teacher asked not to be identified fearing repercussions for her friend, Jane (not her real name), who still belongs to the organization.

The Cave, in a depressed section of Crown Heights, contains nothing that would identify the National Labor Federation on the mailbox or doorbell, she said.

"I arrived there unannounced one day in 1983. Someone came to the door, asking me what I wanted. Everyone's movements were tightly controlled." She was brought inside to a room where "many people were working, talking, holding meetings, swamped under stacks of paper and file cabinets."

A Changed Friend

"A woman whose eyes were glazed spoke very intently about the organization. She seemed wired on coffee and cigarettes. "Jane was brought in and we talked to each other in a room full of people. Clearly they didn't want us to be alone. My arrival created some ambivalence for Jane. She had a guilty look on her face. Her manner was like herself yet it wasn't. She was incapable of carrying on a conversation about friends or common interests. All she could talk about was the organization. A woman who was obviously Jane's mentor or big sister kept interrupting and speaking for her."

When it was time to go to the professor asked Jane if she would walk her to her car, hoping for a moment's privacy, but a male organizer accompanied them out. The volunteers, she said, appeared poorly fed and wore ill- fitting clothes. "Their clothes were very curious, like random objects from a Goodwill bag." "I think the stuff they get from the clothing drives and food from places like Fulton Fish Market is largely used to sustain themselves."

A Long Spiel

On her next visit the professor and some guests sat through a "four-hour" indoctrination which, she supposed, the organizers considered an act of courtesy. "It had a mesmerizing effect. The language is so fuzzy that it's difficult to follow from one sentence to the next." She said the spiel was largely about the unique work of "mutual benefit associations. They had completely rewritten history to put themselves at the apex of the labor movement."

"At this point I had already been in touch with the Cult Awareness Network. What makes them cultish is their monomania. They have only one way of seeing things," she said.

On this second visit she spent the night with Jane and other organizers in the National Labor Federation's penthouse apartment in the West 50s. It apparently was left to Mr. Perente by an affluent dentist sympathetic to the cause.

Carrying Guns

She said she was allowed to spend the next afternoon unchaperoned with Jane. "She started to loosen up a bit and started talking about the arsenal. She said there were weapons but it wasn't clear if she had very seen them. I was shocked this woman who was a pacifist had changed so drastically. Once she told me, 'It is a luxury in today's society not to carry a gun.'"

When they returned to Brooklyn the professor noticed that the guard standing in front of the second-story bay window with a walkie-talkie also was toting a rifle.

Despite the paramilitary atmosphere and talk of "battle plans" the group does not appear serious about violence, she suggested. "Basically what they do is shuffle paper all day and make phone calls. They expend a tremendous amount of energy to get very little done, she said.

Meeting with Perente

On that same visit she met Mr. Perente, she said. "It was as if I was being prepared for an audience with the Pope." The rest of the building was only minimally finished but Mr. Perente's apartment had the trappings of luxury--a stereo, a bar, a comfortable couch. On a coffee table a pistol lay next to Chairman Mao's Book of Quotations.

"Everything seemed calculated. Still, the overall effect was sad and dingy. He had a broken leg (apparently an injury Mr. Perente suffered during the FBI raid when he tried to escape through an elevator shaft). His appearance was striking. He was very thin and had a long, gaunt face, with heavily tobacco stained teeth. His hair, clearly dyed, was jet and slicked back. He wore a white suit that was filthy. There were clumps of dirt in different places," she said.

On one hand Mr. Perente wore a glove. "At first I thought it was ominous but later I noticed it was to cover large sores on his body." Three attentive women followed Mr. Perente's every move, she said, propping up pillows and offering ashtrays while he chain-smoked. She said Jane and a young male, both obviously neophytes far down in the hierarchy, scribbled down notes as Mr. Perente spoke.

The Vulnerable Type

"Later she said it was for posterity, to preserve what he had to say," the professor said. Her description of Jane's background parallels the kind of person the Cult Awareness Network says is most vulnerable to a group like the National Labor Federation: upper-middle class, college educated, often Jewish, socially conscious, and sensitive about the privileges he or she possesses. "The saddest thing about this group is they are luring in people who otherwise would be doing a lot of good things," Mr. Berlet remarked.

On her final visit with Jane last summer, she decided there was no way short of kidnapping and deprogramming" to make her leave. "I think she was brainwashed in a way in the beginning. She didn't receive phone calls or the letters that were sent to her. But eventually these people become their own taskmasters. On a personal level I had to let it go," she said.

"The last time I saw Jane her sense of Judaism and feminism had disappeared. From being a generous person she had become acquisitive in pursuit of the cause. It was always, what can you do for us? Once I flipped and said, 'You're in a cult Jane. I want to help you, but don't ask me to give you money. I don't believe in what this group is doing.' She said she understood."

Money Sought

But the agreement between the friends eroded. Now Jane only writes when the group needs money. "The beginning and end of her letters are warm and personal but the middle parts are pure rhetoric."

The teacher said Jane also phones her mother in the middle of the night asking for money. In exasperation, she said Jane's mother threatened to have her arrested.

In 1978, the Rev. Wilbur Patterson, a Presbyterian minister who works for the Church-affiliated Commission on Voluntary Service action at 475 Riverside Drive in New York, met a young woman named Diane Ramirez. She spoke compellingly about the Church's responsibility to the poor and impressed the minister with the rolled up shirtsleeves work of the National Labor Federation. "It sounded as if they were doing good things and they wanted to increase their association with church groups," he said.

Mrs. Ramirez was invited to join the Commission's executive board and became involved in its major activity--the publication of a guide to volunteer service projects called Invest Yourself. The National Labor Federation began to list its affiliate groups in the guide, which is distributed to churches and college libraries.

Soon, Rev. Patterson said, he began receiving calls from parents alarmed that their children had joined "tightly controlled groups. I was told they were using the same methods as religious cults--hard work, little privacy, and an unquestioning dependence on leadership."

In the meantime, said Rev. Patterson, the Commission allowed the National Labor Federation to publish Invest Yourself because it produced quality print work for little money.

Troubling Patter

But disturbing questions continued to arise, Rev. Patterson recalled. "Some pastors in New Brunswick wanted to know what one of the groups called Eastern Service Workers did with their funds. That confirmed our suspicions," he said.

By 1982, not only did the National Labor Federation print "Invest Yourself," but one quarter of the listings were affiliates and Ms. Ramirez had become the board's chairwoman. He said Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopalian groups withdrew their listings from Invest Yourself. Finally, Rev. Patterson and his colleagues asked Ms. Ramirez to leave the board in the fall of 1982. A church newspaper called Christian Century ran a piece on the maneuvers called How the Revolutionaries Conned the Bureaucrats.

As a result of her removal, Ms. Ramirez sued Rev. Patterson, other Commission members, and the National Council of Churches for $20 million, claiming her civil rights had been violated. Rev. Patterson said the suit was dismissed in Manhattan Federal Court. The National Labor Federation has since filed an appeal, but Rev. Patterson is confident the suit is history. "They infiltrated our organization and took over our publication," he remarked. "We weren't aware of their shadowy way until a lot of damage had been done," he said.

The National Labor Federation still prints Invest Yourself, apparently unbeknownst to some nonprofit groups it lists. "In the latest issue I saw the Sierra Club had run a large ad," said Ms. Coates. "I was shocked."

When she was the national director of the Cult Awareness Network, Ms. Coates said she would receive calls from parents distressed because their children were in a sect "with a deadline for world revolution." The deadlines were flexible, she said. "The last one I knew about was March 15, 1984, the Ides of March." She assumed Mr. Perente selected the date because of "Julius Caesar," his favorite Shakespeare play.

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