Does the solution to poverty have a biweekly table outside Pappa Charlie’s? A report from the front lines of WMLA

Jay Schroeter

 “1700 families in our county are at risk of eviction right now, and we’re doing something about it.”

Thus goes many students’ introductions to Western Massachusetts Labor Action (WMLA), a group that tables regularly outside Papa Charlie’s. I’ve been on both sides of that table. 

Throughout the 1990s, at least three students from the College temporarily or permanently dropped out of college to organize full-time at WMLA. Even today, the group still actively recruits students. Who are they? Their pushiness tastes bitter to students accustomed to our sweetly pluralistic campus culture, so is their pushiness justifiable? Finally, are they a (political) cult? WMLA contacts dozens or even hundreds of Williams students a year, and far more elsewhere at places such as UMass. It is important for students to make informed decisions on whether or not to give the organization their phone number or their time, especially because WMLA usually calls potential volunteers between 12 and 20 times until they answer.

A Record article from Oct. 3, 1995 certainly argued that they were a cult, and it devotes around 7000 words to proving it, using as ammunition horror stories about sleep deprivation, all-night indoctrination classes, working full-time organizers to the point of hilarity, psychological manipulation, constant surveillance, and even a variation of attack therapy.

The Record article examines the National Labor Federation (NATLFED) and its goal of uniting all workers and inciting revolution, drawing connections to its daughter organization in the Berkshire area, WMLA. One would think that the article, along with the NATLFED’s scathing Wikipedia page and a 1996 New York Times exposé, would utterly wipe out WMLA’s and NATLFED’s reputation. Yet, in the year 2022, at a table outside of Papa Charlie’s, I was recruited to help in their mission of organizing the working class. I spent the first week of spring break there, day and night, sleeping in a side office and eating my meals in the break room.

I recommend reading that Record article, but its conclusions can be fairly easily condensed here: The organization doesn’t actually achieve much. WMLA has a mutual benefit program that provides things like food, clothes, and legal assistance for members who request them. These members are primarily low-income working people. But their benefit work is much less efficient than other nonprofits who do similar work (except perhaps the legal assistance, which they do for about five hours every week) because they are much more concerned with attracting new members than with doing charity work. Their benefit program exists only in order to give people a reason to become members and, ostensibly, to provide for members’ immediate needs so that they can join in a fight for long-term change: uniting workers.

In the article, Kurt Tauber, a Williams professor emeritus and member of WMLA’s founding committee, said, “In their own terms, namely not to be a social service agency but a social change agency, namely organizing people for political action, I don’t think they have gotten very far.” This statement holds true 27 years later. I attended a session of the Workers Benefit Council, the weekly meeting that is supposed to serve as the very backbone of the organization by gathering workers to talk about their labor-related and residential issues, and, out of its thousands of members in Berkshire County, only two showed up. One of them was retired.

Their failure to create large-scale social change is remarkable given their 50-year history. Several times over the course of my volunteering, I inquired why they weren’t “doing big stuff” — y’know: strikes; revolution. The cadre responded to my question by affirming that, Yes! The conditions of the working class are far worse than would be necessary to justify a revolution! I never received a satisfying “but” to that statement, though the cadre later implied that “doing big stuff” draws too much attention from the government. Jeff Whitnack, a critic and ex-volunteer, argued in 1984 that they are ineffective and don’t “do big stuff” because their true goal is not to help the poor but to attract volunteers to become committed members of the “Communist Party, Provisional” with which NATLFED is affiliated. The cadre at WMLA disagree and argue that they simply can’t control how effective their efforts will be; they can only control their own efforts and wait for the working class to rally around the cause of labor organizing (which they might be right about — look at Amazon and Starbucks!)

So, how does the organization affect volunteers? During my week at WMLA, I was the acting volunteer coordinator. In this capacity, I did member canvasses and volunteer tables for about 10 hours and made hundreds of phone calls pushing potential volunteers. My working hours were about 9:30 AM to 10:15 PM (excluding lunch and dinner) every day, which is normal (if not mild) for full-time NATLFED organizers. The night before I left, they called me into an office and militantly tried to convince me to stay longer, or forever, even going so far as to say that my reasons for leaving were a cop-out, and that “the status quo would love for [me] to be an English teacher” (which I’d like to do after graduation).

The 1995 Record article said, “They recruit people who could be effective social organizers and confine them to a Kafkaesque hell of pointless activity.” The cadre at WMLA justify their hamster-wheelish hurricane of paperwork by asserting that keeping documented members over a long span of time (for the sake of the plebiscite) requires painstaking records to track the organization’s progress, but another explanation is that the intense and pointless work psychologically manipulates volunteers into behaving with greater loyalty to the organization.

With all that being said, WMLA is harmless to most people, including members and volunteers. The accusation that they are a cult is only relevant to people liable to become full-time organizers (like those three students from the ’90s) either because they truly believe in NATLFED’s vision of labor or because they are easily persuaded and regularly answer their phones. WMLA even does some good for some people: They provide much-needed charity for some members, they educate volunteers about the confusing history of the American labor movement and give experience in the difficult task of organizing, they get students out of the Purple Bubble, and — who knows? — they might someday rally enough strength to change laws or incite a Marxist-style revolution! One thing is certain: The full-time organizers at WMLA are sincere and their actions are consistent with their words. Except meals, they usually volunteer from their rising to their sleeping, seven days a week, all year long. The office is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, and someone staffs it 24/7. 

They sacrifice their entire lives to an organization that they believe the oppressed need in order to assert their own agency and flourishing. They think that WMLA behaves exactly as history has taught them it must behave to survive. I can neither recommend nor condemn volunteering with them. This organization is marred by a scary history of abuse and indoctrination. However, if the labor movement is a necessary step for creating material conditions that aren’t toxic for the majority of the population, and if historical materialism is true, then this organization might be the best bet available. Today at least, their beliefs are consistent with their lives. Mine are generally not. Are yours?

Jay Schroeter ’22 is a classics and religion major with a concentration in Jewish studies from Amarillo, Texas.