Couples of organizers, one male and one female, have been touring the country over the last several years trying to set up cadres to aid and organize unrecognized farmworkers and the unemployed: America’s poor. They represent the National Labor Federation. These organizers then hustle to gather up contacts, lists of key activists, and academics. All are pressured to lend their names, host organizers in town, and give more names of local people to contact– according to some, a typical, though aggressive, organizing drive. But before long, the organizers, who appear fatigued from overwork and undernourishment, have assembled files complete with 3 x 5 index cards which show personal data on most of the community’s activists.
In response to questions raised by community people all over the country, we began researching a suspected NCLC front group, the National Labor Federation. Virtually everywhere the organization has gone–they say they’ve launched organizing drives in 24 areas since 1972–activists almost immediately recognize the organization as NCLC-related. Either that or the members are dismissed as police agents. Often, they are engaged in patented NCLC acts, that is, simply collecting and filing names of activists and poor people working for change. Usually, its organizing style or its political goals set the suspicions in motion.
The true political basis of the National Labor Federation (NATLFED) itself–an umbrella for locals like Eastern Farm Workers Association (EFWA), California Homemakers Association (CHA), Eastern or Western Serviceworkers Association (E-WSWA), and Western Massachusetts Labor Action (WMLAC)–is a mystery. Local NATLFED organizers tend to tease potential cadre with informational tidbits, only to retreat while muttering about a loose coalition somewhere. Later, the same organizer whispers of a party then smiles in response to a battery of questions, verifying that no leadership actually exists. NATLFED members have also aroused curiosity by claiming to have large gun stockpiles. They promise to deliver all this and more.
In seeking answers about the NATLFED, more than forty ex- members and others familiar with the group’s doings were closely questioned. What emerged was a rough oral history of the political and social movements in the 1970’s. Moreover, wrestling with these issues sparked debates concerning organizing strategies, and what it means for any group to completely conceal its political practices and affiliations from the unrecognized, unorganized and unemployed workers who are, allegedly, the object of organizing efforts.
This sensitive research effort proved to be a difficult task. Nonetheless, a series of fruitful discussions internally resulted in this exposition. Here are the facts. And theories. We hope additional information and further debates will fill in the gaps.
In 1973, a man named Eugenio (Gino) Perente, then the leader of EFWA, and now of NATLFED as well, attended a Philadelphia convention of the National Unemployed and Welfare Rights Organization (NUWRO). NUWRO is an NCLC-spawned group which tried to destroy the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), a legitimate national organization which, at its height in the early 70’s, had chapters in nearly every state in the country. NUWRO demonstrated its indifference as NWRO began falling apart, neither able to rescue the collapsing local NWRO structures nor develop new ones in their place. It did, however, score two successes: It unveiled its undefined “class-wise” organizing theory; secondly, it began to form a phantom political community consisting of Perente, members of the International Workers Party/Fred Newman group, an NCLC split-off group, and NCLC itself. The issue was class-wide, or so-called “strata” organizing, which targeted outside the existing union structures.
The affiliation of Perente and his organization with NCLC/NUWRO continued, though the nature of the relationship isn’t clear. Several years later Perente was seen with NCLC top brass, according to one person interviewed. A NATLFED member was quoted as saying: “We work with NCLC from time to time on specific issues.” Another NATLFED organizer said: “We’re not working with NCLC anymore.” As NCLC failed to sustain working ties with any other groups after the 1973 violence began, the relationship between Perente and NCLC, immediately evoked questions concerning their political aspirations.
Paul Goldman, an NCLC press flak, said during a telephone interview that, “We (NCLC) had no principle agreements with him (Perente). He must have been involved with gun-running. He believed we must have armed struggle.” Goldman continued by charging that Perente is “essentially an agent.” NCLC often practices agent baiting, with or without the proof. Here, for example, Perente’s commitment to armed struggle and gun stockpiling has been confirmed by a number of ex- NATLFED associates who were close to him.
One version of his past puts him in the Bay Area Radical Union. In the late 1960’s the group split: many got involved in the anti-war movement while others went the terrorist route, some of whom formed the Symbionese Liberation Army. In recounting his experiences in that period to a once close comrade and NATLFED ideologist, he expressed regret at having rejected the SLA path.
Perente, an intense, compelling, charismatic Mexican- American, was elected president of the now defunct Nationwide Unemployed League (NUL) while still the leader of the Eastern Farm Workers Association, now a part of NATLFED. NUL was organized by the IWP, the 40 member NCLC splinter group. When Perente was elected President, IWP member Al Goldstein, answering a question about their departure from NCLC said only: “Theoretically, Marcus is of value, and has input to left struggles.” And from what can be observed, IWP and it many front groups (Union W.A.G.E., New York City Unemployed and Welfare Council, Lake County Coalition for Survival, School for Progress in New York, and the recently formed New York Working People’s Party) have implemented much of the organizational structure they saw in NCLC. IWP leaders Fred Newman and Hazel Daren wrote in Manifesto on Method, a serious, detailed discussion of the polemics of Lyn Marcus: “From the very beginning our contact with comrades from the ICLC (NCLC international branch) we have worked hard to change that organization while respecting its historically just claim to hegemony.” Hazel Daren at a speech last April on “Women in Struggle” said that, “God created women to lead the struggle.” One activist on the west coast claimed that “Daren caused more dissension on the west coast among women’s groups, and inside the People’s Party.” He compared Moon, the USLP and IWP saying “similar psychological games manipulate all of them.”
IWP and NATLFED have a continuing collaboration. Western Mass. Labor Action (a NATLFED local) has passed out IWP literature including the IWP’s monthly publication, The Struggle, which reports on various NATLFED locals; IWP never fails to included the work of NATLFED as important. Perente has privately told members of his plans to take over the IWP.
There are three entities in question: the NCLC, intelligence vigilantes now operating on the Right; the IWP, actively pursuing inheritance of the beleaguered People’s Party (through that affiliation, has one of two People’s Party seats for meetings of the People Alliance, a national coalition which emerged out of the July 4th Coalition); and NATLFED, organizing local structures under varying names in 24 targeted communities. Besides the historical link NCLC has to the other two, there are many similarities which could point to ongoing collaboration. The groups have applied systems techniques as a way of guiding internal structure. The three leaders dream of hegemony. A LaRouche/Marcus and Perente speak of social change around the corner, and of a leadership ready to grab the reins of power. Moreover, the three employ psychological techniques some call brainwashing, to keep followers close at hand and tightly in line. The memberships seem comparably devoted to and mesmerized by their group and its leader.
NATLFED hews to Communist Party strategy in the depression years which, “in the summer of 1929, had proclaimed the ‘Third Period’ of capitalist crisis and revolutionary offensive,” according to an article in Radical America (vol. 10 no. 4). The goal of the Third Period was “to set up Councils of Unemployed Workers,” the CP described. Briefly put, unemployment organizing at that time became central to the CP program. It was part of a two-pronged approach. While organizing within industrial unions they would be building structures in the unemployed sector, representing a solid one-third of the workforce. The CP strategy took a quantum leap further. It sought to dominate and bring under CP leadership every labor or unemployed organization in existence.
In this context, the NCLC, IWP and NATLFED, whether conspiratorial or not, could exist as the agenda for any of these organizations. NCLC discredits and disrupts; IWP infiltrates and tries to organize the left; the NATLFED delivers the unorganized.
To the extent that NATLFED sees present conditions as comparable to the level of economic turmoil in the early 30’s, it is inclined to employ those strategies and incorporate that criticism.
NATLFED Detailed A social worker familiar with NATLFED work said, “They are doing the work state agencies should be providing. If they were interested in feeding or clothing people, it’s the state they should press, not themselves.” And rather than organize educational structures, which would nip the low or no wage contradiction in the bud, NATLFED has formed volunteer-run “benefits programs,” which include, in its words: “Free dental care for members and their families. In addition, USWA-CHA (California Homemakers Association) provides free legal aid. Free emergency food and clothing are also collected and provided to members in severe need.” NATLFED explains its “strata” organizing in its only public document, Sociology and the Unrecognized Worker, as follows:
Our strata is made up of people who circulate through many statuses during the course of a lifetime or even in a single year. Sometimes our members work in the fields, sometimes in domestic work, in a car wash, at service work, in a laundry or restaurant, are unemployed or on welfare. This demands that organizational emphasis be placed on the entire strata. Poverty programs, educational systems, etc., have generally pulled from our strata, the most beautiful, intelligent or healthy, others have fallen into our strata, leaving the basic statistical contours of the strata pretty much untouched. It is our aim to raise our strata as a whole. This demands the organization of the entire strata.
Since 1972, NATLFED has been involved in only a few union recognition battles, and, in general, has not been organizing according to their claims. One labor battle, on Long Island, New York, resulted in a sticky legal issue concerning union recognition. “Though they’ve entrusted a lot of people,” another social worker explained, “the members don’t do anything. NATLFED doesn’t build anything.” And the relationships with members, from all accounts, are very much like that of social worker to client; it’s one to one, and specifically concerned with immediate needs.
They claim to have 40,000 members in their various locals, such as Sacramento, New Brunswick, Philadelphia, Bellport, Long Island, Binghamton, New York, and Western Massachusetts, to name the larger ones. Members represent the fifth and outer rung in NATLFED’s systems-obsessive organization. The fourth rung is volunteers or VOLS. All procedures and activities are coded. At this level recruits are those most likely to accept their ultimately cultic internal structure–usually young, naive college students, who, once in, are expected to leave college–and placed into the cadre or CDR level. The CDR is classified into two types: tabular on the third rung and viable on the second. Viable CDR are considered candidates for the inner circle, the party–there are between 30 and 50 in the clandestine party–which has no name and is referred to cryptically, by assumed members, like Perente, to keep viable cadre intrigued.
The members receive social services from the locals. VOLS are engaged in organizing other members, and going out to raise money, either by organizing bake sales, or by passing the can in shopping centers. Cadre are the only ones brought into the fold. They are told of gun stockpiles, the party, and future plans, and they are the ones who are expected to “be on duty 24 hours a day.” CDR are almost completely occupied by clerical work, which entails phoning, typing, and filing forms and 3 x 5 index cards in the 12 or so boxes of files. For each contact made by a cadre, there is a card made out in triplicate; one for the master file, another for the FIIN (financial input) file, and the third in the VOL file, for example.
Each time NATLFED enters an area to set up OPS (operations) an organizer’s first duty is hassling key activist for names of all the people they know. And, in some cases, without prior approval, they begin to use the activist’s name, thereby boosting credibility. Immediately systems and files are created. The 3 x 5 cards begin accumulating: name, address, schooling, activities and political background. Thus, before organizing efforts were launched names go to cards and cards go in order. The master file cards are then sent to POPS or permanent operations located in Perente’s brownstone house in Brooklyn. One ex-member charged: “Collecting names, and keeping them on file is doing the work of the police. Look, it’s too obvious!” Another ex- member saw cards with social security numbers on them.
Another piece of evidence for the claim that NATLFED has been an intelligence outpost was furnished last year in a memo from NATLFED Central Operations to a member:
We request that you conduct an inquiry into the groups and/or individuals who are working in either the Joanne Chesmard Defense Committee or the Phil Shinnick Defense Committee. Any information that you can find out about these people would be very useful to us at this time. What we want is an overview of who is involved and where these groups are moving. This will enable us to get an idea of other forces moving in the New Brunswick entity loco. Thanks.
The member withdrew from the organization shortly thereafter. Over a year period in the New Brunswick area, there were ten break-ins of organizations’ offices and homes of activists. In all cases, they were people close to or involved in the NATLFED group. One TV was the only piece of property stolen. Five of the break-ins occurred during a two week period, all of which were NATLFED-connected. During the fifth break-in, a key NATLFED field organizer was caught in the act.
Virtually everyone we talked to who had contact with NATLFED confirmed that the inner circle people, including Perente, have referred to gun stockpiles in Sacramento. This information, which some found shocking, usually was noted casually at parties and meetings. And it didn’t seem to matter who was told. One ex-member told of Perente’s master plan: “He told us that there was a plan to surround and takeover police stations, as part of some sort of romantic revolutionary plot.”
“This is the carrot and stick principle,” another ex-member described. “The carrot is that there is a party, or that there are training camps all over the state. The stick is his (Perente’s) violent, intimidating manner. First, we take you to Montauk Point; break your legs; then into the water; if you fuck with us,” the ex-member explained.
The question always posed at this point is: “Why do people join these groups?” Apparently, there are attractive elements. Their ideas, especially to naive political ears, sound perceptive and fresh. NATLFED, like NCLC admits that, “We don’t rely on the Left.” “We’re organizing outside the Left,” NATLFED organizer Anthony County recited. This is new. Their energy is exciting. A commitment to a cause is appealing. Replacing the pressure of late adolescent, college life, the group guarantees a 24 hour-a-day routine filled with predetermined commitments, chores, and ideas. One present member says, “I was searching for some political ties. I had nothing to give up. All I had was two years of college and a lot of hard work in front of me.”
In the no-alcohol, no-sleep, bad-health, canned-food and cigarette-filled life of the cadre, there is too much work and more than enough pressure to keep members devoted to a cause they once understood conceptually from the outside. An ex-member recalled “A lot of the time you wanted to go up to somebody and ask them ‘What are we doing?’, but there was no one to go up to.”
And if the member should venture a criticism, retaliation should be expected. One ex-member explained that on several occasions she sat for 12 hours forced to listen to Perente reading. “This is how they get you to stay. It’s like the Moonies. First they give you a meal with meat, which is real special. Gino’s (Perente’s) three women make you comfortable, put you in a room. When you’re tired, he comes in and reads and talks to you. After this long process, I felt trapped. I just knew that.”
This review of NATLFED shows that more information is needed before firm conclusions can be made, though many of the suspicions seem justified. The historical links between NCLC, IWP and NATLFED constitute only one chain of evidence for the group’s clandestine, unsavory connections. The penchant for “systems” theory, along with the adoption of its jargon; the references to archenemy Rockefeller; the focus on “strata” rather than masses–all these attributes place NATLFED and similar organizations in a dubious political light. Whether these groups work with NCLC directly or not, they are a distinct coalition which, beyond their cultic trappings, form an intelligence network whose effect is to destabilize structures all along the political spectrum, while dreaming of hegemony.