The Social Justice Unionism of Wendell Young III

The Philadelphia union leader Wendell Young III straddled the worlds of the labor movement born out of the New Deal and the social movements of the New Left. He believed that uniting these two worlds in struggle could transform the United States.

Wendell Young III speaking in support of striking miners in Pittston, Pennsylvania, 1989. (Collection of Wendell W. Young III)

Political memoirs are generally the domain of the ruling class. There is no shortage of literature from presidents, prime ministers, and political party leaders reliving their deeds. But what about union leaders? Despite the fact that unions were one of the dominant social and political institutions throughout the twentieth century, few union leaders have penned memoirs.

While union leaders should not be fetishized, they play a role in shaping one of the only vehicles for working-class political advancement we have, balancing the fight over the day-to-day concerns of their members and the broader interests of all working people. This kind of direct engagement with a mass constituency should be of interest to anyone of the Left.

Wendell W. Young III was a beacon of progressive, militant trade unionism in the Philadelphia area for decades as head of the Retail Clerks Union Local 1537 (which eventually became United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1776 through a merger). The Memoirs of Wendell W. Young III: A Life in Philadelphia Labor and Politics, edited by labor historian Francis Ryan, offers a rich perspective on his many political triumphs and defeats.

Young came of age during a period when the labor movement’s social power and political influence was at its height, representing a significant portion of working people and acting as a major force in electoral politics. His career ended in a period of steep decline for unions, a period we still live in.

These memoirs unveil Young’s broad perspective on the labor movement as a tool for advancing social justice for all working people, not just the interests of a given local’s members. Under his leadership, the Retail Clerks Union was often in the vanguard of Philadelphia’s labor movement, fighting racial and gender discrimination on the job and forming innovative community alliances.

He took this vision into his work for the Democratic Party at the local, state, and national level. His descriptions of the inner workings of party life, and its dense institutional ties with the labor movement, are critical for understanding the contradictions that beset labor’s engagement with electoral politics.

While his successes as a union leader are inspiring, it is perhaps his narration of a period of retreat that is most instructive for us now. Young persisted with building a social justice–focused union in the face of deindustrialization, sweeping attacks on unions, and a Democratic Party shifting rightward. This is the terrain we fight on in the labor movement today.

Teenage Steward

Young grew up in the neighborhood of Mayfair, a working-class section of Philadelphia, during the 1940s. He describes his neighbors as being bus drivers, truck drivers, warehouse workers, and office clerks. Already at this time, working-class dislocation had begun, as industrial jobs began moving to the South.

At age sixteen, Young got a part-time job as a clerk at Acme supermarket company. His father had been part of an unsuccessful union drive in the 1930s but still stressed to young Wendell the importance of becoming an active union member. He joined the union and immediately made his presence felt at his first general membership meeting. When the leadership proposed using dues money for an expensive holiday party, teenage Wendell Young III was the only voice of opposition.

In a sense, the trajectory of his political life was already firmly set by the context in which he lived and worked in his early years. Besides the importance of the labor movement, his upbringing stressed broader social justice values that stayed with him throughout his life. Young recalls how his father strictly forbade the use of racist language in the house, and the common sight of women in his family taking leadership roles.

Wendell was the first member of his family to receive higher education, enrolling in St Joseph’s College in 1956. He was exposed to a broader range of political and intellectual connections that served him well later on, as he constantly straddled the worlds of union politics and left-wing, campus-based activism.

St Joseph’s was a Catholic institution, and Young found in Jesuit teachings a call to get involved in changing the world. He started where he was, in his union local. After becoming a steward, he quickly started enforcing the contract in a way that wasn’t being done. Young was still only nineteen years old when he had his first big organizing breakthrough. Acme made employees give “voluntary contributions” to United Way, whose board members conveniently included top company managers. Young organized a successful boycott that ended this practice.

Ward Politics

From an early age, Young saw a close mutual relationship between the labor movement and electoral politics. Just as opportunities opened up for him in his union, openings emerged for him in ward politics. This book’s excellent nitty-gritty description of labor’s involvement with municipal level politics is invaluable for our understanding of the nature of labor’s ties to the Democratic Party.

Although the first Democratic mayor was elected in 1951, the Democratic Party was still weak at the ward level in Northeast Philadelphia, Young’s stomping grounds. This vacuum allowed Young to step in and begin serving as the thirty-fifth ward committeeman at the age of twenty-one.

After finishing college, Young got caught up in the enthusiasm of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. He admitted that he was mostly excited because he was a Catholic. But whatever the motivation, the practical canvassing work he did to get the vote out for Kennedy opened more doors for him. The operation he ran was successful, and Young became a ward leader a few years later. Philadelphia’s labor movement came out strongly for Kennedy, and he won the city by a bigger margin than Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Young was introduced to electoral politics during a period when the Democratic Party seemed to be cut from a different cloth than it is today. Working-class constituencies and institutions played a major role in electoral outcomes and candidate platforms. A different breed of candidates, more reflective of the party’s working-class base, emerged more often from this constellation of forces.

Take former Philadelphia mayor James Hugh Joseph Tate as an example. Tate cut his teeth in politics knocking doors in his own working-class neighborhood for Roosevelt in the 1930s. Throughout his political career, his constituency remained solidly working class, and he chose to remain living in the same neighborhood he grew up in. For the most part, Tate backed the local labor movement’s priorities, and unions saw tangible results from his time in office.

James Hugh Joseph Tate, mayor of Philadelphia from 1962 to 1972. (Wikimedia Commons)

During his 1967 reelection campaign, Tate put Young on the City Policy Committee, and Young saw to it that the city’s unions consolidated behind the mayor. Arrangements like this show the degree to which union leaders, even politically progressive ones like Young, have been and still are deeply enmeshed in the machinery of the Democratic Party. Discussions today of “breaking” with the Democrats need to take into account this complex and contradictory history of labor’s mutual relationship inside the party.

Union Reform

Young’s work on the Kennedy campaign made him see vast potential political power of labor — and how his own union wasn’t measuring up. He started a reform movement within his local called Meet the Challenge to change that. The colorful stories from this period will resonate with any person plugging away to improve their own union local.

Acme saw what Young was up to, and constantly cut his hours and transferred him to different stores in an attempt to force him out. This only gave him the opportunity to broaden his connections within the union as he met clerks from multiple stores. Soon he ran for business agent and handily won, continuing to build a network of strong shop stewards and push back against petty managers.

He also boldly took on racial division within the workplace. Black workers were relegated to the lowest paid jobs and couldn’t join the union because they were technically classified as maintenance management. Young signed them up anyway and took the case to arbitration. Though the case was lost, Young would continue to use the union to fight for racial justice.

In the local’s leadership election, the Meet the Challenge slate ran on a platform of an eight-hour day for part-timers, the end of split shifts, and a health and welfare benefit program. They won by a three to one margin, and just like that, the twenty-four-year-old Wendell Young was the president of a union local.

Management tested the young leader, but he quickly proved that his youth was not a liability. In 1963, the Food Fair company began opening up shops under new names to avoid being under the union contract. In response to constant contract violations, Young organized the Food Fair strike of 1964. It lasted thirty-two days and featured rolling walkouts across the Eastern Seaboard. Always ready to utilize personal connections, he got his zookeeper friend to help the strike by releasing cockroaches at stores to scare away customers.

In the 1965 negotiations, the union won an increase in weekly pay from $95 to $105, a new pension plan, increases in health benefits, and job security for stewards. A single pay rate for all clerks was established, immediately moving many black workers up the pay scale and into more clerk jobs.

Municipal Wars

The shadow of former police commissioner and mayor Frank Rizzo still hangs over Philadelphia. Tales of Young’s epic battles with Rizzo are among the most compelling parts of the book.

Rizzo was somewhat Trumpian in political style. His political career emerged at a moment when deindustrialization was well advanced in the city, bringing along with it an increase in crime. His reputation as a tough police commissioner was built on the violent repression of black communities and the counterculture. He made unabashedly reactionary statements that weren’t supposed to be said out loud, and delighted his supporters when he did so.

Rizzo’s rhetoric spoke to many working people wanting order and stability, and culturally, he seemed to be one of them. He returned office calls personally, took a direct role in administering city services, and made sure to attend the funeral of every city worker. In the early days of Rizzo’s political career, Young was often the lone voice of opposition to Rizzo within Philadelphia’s labor movement.

Statue of Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia. (Wikimedia Commons)

Young’s first interaction with him came at an AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education (COPE) banquet, where Rizzo was bragging about raiding the Black Panthers’ headquarters and dropping racial slurs. A shouting match between the two ensued when Young confronted him.

As Rizzo’s first term as mayor went on, Young was able to cohere an opposition from some of the more new and dynamic corners of the labor movement. Teachers, public sector workers, hospital workers, machinists, and retail workers were the backbone of this opposition, aligning with the many militant public sector strikes already taking place in the early 1970s.

Part of the broader opposition to Rizzo was the emerging black political class, which Young aligned his union behind. In 1975, Lucien Blackwell, a black state legislator and former International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1332 leader, decided to run for city council. Young was enlisted to help Blackwell get labor backing, and he won in a landslide.

But city politics are never simple. Rizzo was able to form unexpected alliances to hold on to power. In exchange for a 15 percent wage increase, Rizzo got the support of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) District Council 33, the mostly black blue-collar municipal worker union. Despite his reputation as a racist, this deal helped Rizzo get a surprising share of the black vote in his 1975 reelection campaign.

But Young’s work in building a base to fight Rizzo wasn’t in vain. Pro-Rizzo forces attempted to change the city charter to allow him to run for a third term. Young led the charge organizing progressive labor forces to prevent this, while Rizzo leaned on the building trades and Teamsters to support him. He lost an ally in AFSCME DC 33 when he announced layoffs of sanitation workers and a bitter trash strike ensued in 1978.

The progressive forces out-organized Rizzo, and the charter change was rejected by over two hundred thousand votes.

A Social Vision

Young always held a vision of the labor movement that is known today as social unionism or social justice unionism. This is best articulated in his memoirs when he says, “I believed that labor and politics involved a struggle for the heart of America and the kind of future we would have as a society. Labor must be involved in shaping the bigger issues; it was more than advancing its own interests.”

This approach was integrated into Young’s union work immediately after winning leadership of his local. From then on, racial justice, gender justice, and the antiwar movement all became the concern of the Retail Clerks Union Local 1537.

Just as his new role of union leader was beginning, black workers were mounting an organized response to discriminatory employment practices in various industries. The Negro American Labor Council originally formed by A. Philip Randolph, demanded more inclusive hiring practices in the construction trades. They were joined by the Philadelphia branches of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in picketing sites that weren’t hiring black workers.

The 400 Ministers, a group of black pastors organizing around economic opportunity, approached Young early in his first term as president. He signed on to their campaign boycotting retail stores that didn’t employ black people. In bargaining, Young wouldn’t allow companies to use union seniority rules as an excuse to not move black workers into higher positions.

His outlook on international politics was changed forever when he took a trip to Brazil in 1967. The tour was sponsored by the American Institute for Free Labor Development, a key arm of the AFL-CIO that aided pro-American and anticommunist foreign policy, and was carefully curated to conform to dominant Cold War sensibilities. Young had always bought into anti-Communist ideology without question. But he was struck by the poverty in Brazil, and saw Communists and the church helping people. Honest conversations with labor activists in Brazil opened his eyes to the brutality of Brazil’s dictatorship and how it repressed labor.

The experience made him rethink the validity of the Vietnam War and join the antiwar opposition. This move came with considerable risk and pushback from his membership, many of whom were World War II and Korean War vets. Members even moved to impeach him as union president, which he only survived by a single vote.

Young saw himself as uniquely positioned to bring the ideas and energy of the New Left to working-class Philadelphians. He campaigned hard in Northeast Philadelphia for antiwar presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, despite the Democratic Party machine and AFL-CIO support for Hubert Humphrey. When fifteen thousand demonstrated in Philadelphia after the Kent State shootings, Young was one of the only representatives from labor. In the 1972 presidential campaign, Young helped organize peace candidate George McGovern’s campaign in Philadelphia, which he won despite losing the state.

Young seemed to have a hand in all of the high-profile struggles of the 1960s and ’70s. He worked with the Consumer Education and Protection Association (CEPA) to support the United Farm Workers strike. The CEPA asked Young to have the produce crews refuse to put nonunion grapes on Acme’s shelves. Though this was a secondary boycott that had been made illegal by the Taft-Hartley Act and thus posed huge risks to the union, he decided to go through with it. Eventually, Acme refused to buy nonunion grapes. In 1969, Young organized for Cesar Chavez to speak before the AFL-CIO Food Council.

He influenced changes in state employment that still exist today. State-level jobs used to be doled out through patronage, with thousands of state employees laid off when a new administration came in. Young played a central role in building the coalition to pass the Public Employee Relations Act, which gave civilian state employees the right to organize. State liquor store clerks joined his union in 1971 and won a contract that included overtime pay, a shortened work week, and a health insurance plan.

Just as he consciously fought racial discrimination in the workplace, he recruited more women as stewards and business agents throughout the 1970s. He supported the establishment of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, an organization that is still actively fighting for equality in the workplace. It was commonly assumed that women retail workers were mostly supplementing their husband’s income, which Young saw firsthand was false.

Running for Congress in 1980, his bold platform included demands to nationalize the oil industry. As deindustrialization wreaked havoc on the labor movement throughout the 1980s, Young thought the labor movement should go on the offensive instead of retreat.

Young cites a series of compounding factors as causing the economic downturn of the late 1970s. Increased international competition, oil price hikes, and the decline of Philadelphia’s tax base all sent grocery and department stores fleeing to the suburbs. The resulting decline in union membership led to the merger of the retail clerks with the meat cutters to form the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) in 1979.

Always thinking ahead, Young decided to experiment with employee ownership and have workers buy stores to run them. He was able to raise money from his members to launch the plan, and in 1982, the employee-owned Super Fresh Food Markets was formed. The union trained members in the skills needed to operate a store, like controlling inventories, buying produce, and coordinating truck delivery. Though this venture ultimately didn’t last, Young claimed that the experience allowed workers to bring more creativity and pride into their job.

Young never stopped trying to push the labor movement to take on broader social goals. In the 1990s, he supported the New Voices slate for leadership of the AFL-CIO, and joined in Tony Mazzocchi’s effort to build a Labor Party. These memoirs allow a new generation of organizers in the labor movement with similar goals to understand the ground that’s been laid before us.

In many ways, the life of Wendell W. Young III embodied the lost opportunities during a critical period of the twentieth century. Young straddled the worlds of the labor movement born out of the New Deal and the social movements of the New Left. He believed that uniting these two worlds in struggle could transform US society. Young’s memoirs are not only a delight to read — they will serve as a guide for anyone trying to make the labor movement a home for social change.