North Adams -- Western Massachusetts Labor Action, a Pittsfield-based group whose connection to one of the country's most extreme political cults was exposed in the mid-1990s, opened a "benefit office" at the Seventh Day Adventist Church at 45 Chestnut St. in August 2002.
Western Massachusetts Labor Action is "using it as a base for expanded door-to-door canvassing for surrounding low-income neighborhoods to unite the working poor and unemployment in the fight for living wage jobs," according to its own January 2003 publication, the Western Massachusetts Alliance News. The story runs under the headline, "New WMLA benefit office opens up in North Adams; Provides base for North County membership organizing."
Light was shed on Western Massachusetts Labor Action in the mid-1990s, when newspaper reports linked it to the National Labor Federation or NATLFED, also known as the Provisional Communist Party. Watchdog groups and government agencies have described NATLFED as one of the country's most extreme and controlling political cults.
Thursday, WMLA officials denied its cultic associations publicized in the past.
"We're definitely not a cult," said Carol Rogers, WMLA administrative assistant and its newspaper's editor.
Prior to exposÚs in the Berkshire Eagle, Boston Globe and New York Times in the mid-1990s, WMLA had recruited three Williams College students who left the school and joined on the premise they'd be dedicating their lives to help clothe and feed the poor. A former member of WMLA, who left Williams to join the group in 1994, said she was encouraged to relocate to New York City, where she underwent Marxist indoctrination and had her every move monitored, according to a 1995 report in the Berkshire Eagle. One of the former students still is active in WMLA.
A WMLA flyer obtained Thursday at its Pittsfield office describes the group as a "labor organization of a new type facing a task of tremendous proportion -- uniting Berkshire County's unrecognized workers as well as those on fixed incomes or out of work, along with concerned community residents, business people, professionals, students, clergy and others. Through collective action, WMLA is building strength to eradicate the root causes of poverty."
Founded by Readsboro, Vt., resident Peggy Uman, WMLA opened an Adams office in 1975, which has long since closed. But it has continued to operate a Pittsfield office at 298 Columbus Ave. since 1977, and Uman left the group sometime around 1990. Uman was connected to the late Eugenio Perente-Ramos, whom cultic experts say was a notorious cult leader. WMLA's apparent renewed interest in North County has alarmed some.
"They are in no way involved with legitimate health and human services agencies that serve people to help them to become independent ... but involve [people] to become dependent on them," said an area health and human services official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Marie Harpin, area director of Community Action-North Adams, a primary food pantry for Northern Berkshire County, said the WMLA came to her attention again last Thanksgiving, when she learned it was giving out food at the Chestnut Street church.
"I remember this group from years ago," said Harpin.
"I'm totally in the dark" about WMLA's efforts, she added, saying the group hasn't made its latest efforts known to agencies like Community Action.
Harpin said Community Action-North Adams, the North Adams Salvation Army and one brown bag lunch program in Adams and another in Williamstown are serving the needs of local people adequately.
"So we really don't need another group collecting food," Harpin said.
What appears to make WMLA stand out from the existing food pantry services is its emphasis on recruiting members helped by it. Groups like the Salvation Army and Community Action don't engage in membership activity.
The group was denied permission Thursday to continue its "bucket drives" at the North Adams Stop 'N' Shop and to maintain a staffed table inside. This came after an area resident recalled the WMLA publicity in the 1990s and brought concerns about the group to the attention of the supermarket manager.
Salvation Army Capt. Brian Merchant, who said he was not familiar with WMLA, did notice its literature table at the Stop 'N' Shop Wednesday. It struck him as odd that the group was allowed to solicit in the store, according to Merchant. Company policy normally prevents groups like the Salvation Army from soliciting inside the store, according to Merchant. Corporate spokeswoman Kelly O'Connor confirmed that is the company policy.
North Adams Stop 'N' Shop Manager Larry Jones said five people staffed the booth from Sunday to Wednesday collecting food items. Jones said a WMLA official told the supermarket the items were to be given to the needy.
Last fall, Western Massachusetts Labor Action organizers set up a literature table on the sidewalk in front of Martin's Shoe Store on Main Street. It was shut down once the city realized it didn't have a permit, according to Rod Bunt of the Mayor's Office of Travel and Tourism.
Recalling last fall's encounter on Main Street, Bunt said the man who appeared in charge at the table on Main Street told him the group was representing non-union affiliated workers who needed a voice in Western Massachusetts.
Eileen Clark, owner of Martin's Shoe Store, Inc., in North Adams, said she was first contacted by Thacher L. Kent, WMLA operations manager, about three years ago.
Kent asked her to donate money for a clothing drive they were having to purchase and distribute clothing in the area. Clark said she told him she could not give money, but would donate two bags of clothing that her son had outgrown. No one from the WMLA office ever picked up the clothes, as they told Clark they would.
Since then Clark said she has paid to advertise in the WMLA newspaper a few times a year, most recently a $50 advertisement in December. Martin's is one of a number of Berkshire County advertisers in the WMLA newspaper.
Clark said she understood the organization to be an advocacy organization that fills a community need.
"I've never had any reason to feel anything was going on besides what they do," Clark said.
Kent usually called Clark when the WMLA had a specific need, such as money for fuel assistance or to collect coats for a coat drive. She said Kent asked her to become a volunteer, but Clark chose not to get involved. However Clark said she "helps out" by buying advertising.
Clark described Kent as "very sincere and soft spoken." When she has said no to his request for donations or volunteering, he has always respected that, she said.
In the WMLA newspaper, Kent, who is also listed as the paper's publisher, is pictured in a photo at the North Adams Stop 'N' Shop accompanying a story announcing the opening of the North Adams office. The photo caption explained Kent "signs up a potential volunteer ... publicizing the new benefit office."
Kent is a former Williams College student who dropped out of college after he became involved with the WMLA in the mid-1990s, according to a 1994 report in the Williams Record college newspaper.
Kent lives in the area, but has an unpublished phone number and could not be reached for comment.
Interviewed Thursday evening at Seventh Day Adventist Church benefit office, Mike Petteys, a WMLA volunteer, denied any truth behind prior published reports on the group and said the group did not engage in cultic activities. He was showed the Berkshire Eagle exposÚ and called it "completely inaccurate." Petteys said he hadn't read the report, but had heard about it. He called the story of the Williams College student who claimed she was nearly brainwashed "ridiculous." Petteys said the WMLA has operated benefit offices off and on in North Adams for years, sometimes out of private homes.
WMLA is "not a political organization, [and] not tied to anything," Petteys said. "It is what it is."
WMLA is trying to offer assistance to local poor by going door-to-door, Petteys said. The only thing they ask of people they assist is to help the next person in whatever way they can, he said.
If low-income people are hurt by their circumstances "we're going to try to find a real solution," Petteys said. "And anybody who really cares about poor people will find ways to best solve the problem."
The benefit office Thursday night was bustling with adults cooking food for the children playing in the church's main chapel.
"Maybe we're going to be called names because we're stepping on toes," Petteys said.
Its fall 2002 sponsors guide lists numerous prominent businesses, doctors and lawyers throughout Berkshire County.
At the Pittsfield office, WMLA administrative assistant Rogers also denied the group was engaged in cultic activity, when asked of its prior publicity linking it to NATLFED. She said the group merely serves its members by providing free food, clothing, access to doctors and dentists and legal advocates.
"We're definitely not a cult," Rogers said. "There's always people who see the negative side of everything."
While denying a direct connection to the group, Rogers said WMLA does sell the California-based NATLFED calendars as a fundraiser.
Seventh Day Adventist Church Preacher Matthew Farrar said the church made its space available to WMLA "to help people pitch in and work together," according to the WMLA newspaper.
WMLA canvassed North Adams neighborhoods last summer and "signed members who, while working as many as three jobs in the tourism industry ... were unable to afford school clothing for their children."
"Many tenants contacted on the membership canvassing have said that the city's new-found tourist appeal is causing their housing costs to escalate as the demand rises for local properties," Kent said in the WMLA newspaper article. "A number of service workers and disabled workers have told us about the landlord-tenant difficulties they were facing as a result. In response, we are setting up legal advice sessions at the benefit office."
Farrar said Thursday night he has seen first-hand and can attest to the help the WMLA has provided for poor people in the local community.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, WMLA was active at Williams College, canvassed North County neighborhoods seeking donations, and set up donation spots outside of local supermarkets. A New York Times article described WMLA's presence on the Williams campus as a "sort of Salvation Army with a political edge." Williams eventually tried to restrict WMLA's activity on campus, where it had apparently curried enough favor with a two professors as to have some of its members lecture in their classes.
At the time, WMLA operated under the premise it sought food and money donations for the needy and operated a wood fuel assistance program for local residents. But a former member told the Berkshire Eagle in 1995 that the group engaged in little community assistance and members ate most of the food donations.
A former member also said WMLA lured its members on the basis of community service, but wound up indoctrinating them with what was described as a far-left and unorthodox brand of Marxism.
The New York City police carried out a raid at NATLFED's Brooklyn headquarters in November 1996 after suspecting it was harboring bombs. No bombs were ever found, but police did find an arsenal of weapons.
According to cult-watch Web sites, NATLFED has been active for three decades and operates by using dozens of smaller fronts.