The Eastern Service Workers Association (ESWA) has been recruiting on the UMass Boston campus for two years, both by tabling on McCormack’s second floor, and through the Office of Student Leadership and Community Engagement (OSLCE).
According to a FBI file, the ESWA is a front group for a national organization called the National Federation of Labor (NATLFED). As a ‘front’ group, the ESWA operates as a recruiting branch for NATLFED, although they claim to have no affiliation.
In FBI-seized NATLFED literature, NATLFED calls itself the “closed and secret party of the Leninist revolution.” New York police, responding to reports of child abuse at the Brooklyn location, discovered 50 firearms and over $40,000 in cash in ESWA and NATLFED offices.
“It seems that I’m getting put under pressure, and that I can’t think clearly. I’ve had a headache all day. Not much sleep is typical,” writes one young woman about her experience in a California branch of NATLFED. Another FBI report claimed that another woman “may have been assaulted and kept at [the] group’s Carroll Street [Brooklyn] location against her will.”
The ESWA first approached Sherrod Williams, director of the OSLCE, in 2011. “Before last year, I had never heard of them,” he said. “They sought me out, and [now] we help them recruit student volunteers on campus.”
When asked if he had ever heard that the ESWA might be a cult, Williams said, “Had never heard that. All the activities we have with them have never been suspicious in nature.” Although OSCLE does not do background checks on groups that want to use UMass students as volunteers, he does try to meet with them in person and “check out their websites.” He said that the OSLCE tries to “steer clear of political activities which people classify as service.”
Williams also stated that his office “[does not] volunteer with them on a continuous basis.” He plans to allow the ESWA to continue to recruit UMass Boston students as volunteers in the future, if they wish to, but he also says he’ll be “mindful.”
He adds, “Some of the allegations made are severe and extreme in nature, and my job is to ensure safety of any student volunteers through our office. Should a concern arise, I will handle it directly.”
In 2006, Dan Roche, then a UMass Boston student and reporter for The Mass Media, wrote an article detailing his experience volunteering for the ESWA stating, “I spoke with people who had long been separated from their families.” When Roche attempted to go home after 12 hours of volunteering, an ESWA member stood in front of the door. “I almost had to use physical force!” said Roche. When he phoned them to break his ties to the organization, he was told, "I have your address here in front of me,” which Roche considered a veiled threat.
SWA’s table in McCormack, said that none of the volunteers receive compensation: “Nobody here makes a salary.” As a “full-time organizer,” Conlin explains that his food and housing needs are met “through our benefit program.”
A woman who had recently left a California NATLFED front told the authorities she saw a feast for “what appeared to be 80 people” volunteering for the group prepared from “large coolers with food, which was obtained by donation.” The folks she saw eating donated dinners were not poor or needy, in fact some of the “very well-dressed” dinner guests appeared to be doctors and lawyers who provided occasional free services to the organization at their private practices.
The same woman reported that men and women in her group’s office would drag mattresses out of the corners and sleep on them every night after midnight.
Roche wrote in his article that the practice of having volunteers live off of donations continued in Boston in 2006. “Allegedly they solicited food from the poor to pool it for the use of the poor, but they really just consumed it themselves. Same with clothes. I observed them doing this.”
Articles about ESWA and other NATLFED affiliates are compiled in a now-defunct blog at politiculcults.blogspot.com. The comments on the posts are often by ex-members or the desperate parents of current members. One mother writes “My daughter is planning to move there this summer, live in.... Please advise. I notice they do not even have beds there for these volunteers to sleep.” A UMass Boston student who volunteered with Conlin and wished to remain anonymous was able to confirm that members do live in the offices.
According to Conlin, the ESWA has ties to many other local community organizations. “We work with unions,” he said. “They ask, and we will send them people to walk the picket line or help them with food and clothing.” But none of the 27 Boston unions contacted by The Mass Media confirmed Conlin’s claim. Rich Rogers, the executive secretary treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council, said his office has “never heard of them.”
Conlin also claims a relationship with Occupy Boston. “We were speaking to people in the Occupy movement, and a lot of them came down to volunteer here,” he said. According to David Knuttunnen and other orgizers, the only person in the Occupy movement to remember the group, the ESWA had no association with Occupy.
Conlin was quick to address criticism. “People don’t want working people to have a voice,” he explained. He speculated that the major news sources such as the Boston Globe, who refer to the ESWA as a cult, are being paid to do so.
Thirteen Boston area universities reported that they had never worked with ESWA. Boston College, Boston University, and another large university that preferred not to give an official statement, stated that they had partnered with the group in the past but have since chosen to cut ties.
Dave McNemanin, who in 2008 was the director of the PULSE Program for Service Learning Boston College, is the only university staff member in Boston who has ever given a public statement on why he chose to stop working with ESWA. In a 2008 article written for the student newspaper The Boston Underground, he told reporter Nate Leskovic, “They wanted to push the students to canvass. They [the students] were asked continually to participate more. They experienced pressure,” McNemanin said. Then a student who lived in one of the neighborhoods the ESWA claimed to be serving told McNemanin that the ESWA didn’t seem to be actually be engaging in any meaningful work in the community. “There was just enough to make me wary. I didn’t feel like I could trust them.”