Wendell W. Young III, 74, labor-union 'giant'

Posted: January 04, 2013

IT WAS AN ERA when many labor leaders thought that the best way to get what they wanted for their unions was with fists and clubs.

News outlets in the 1970s and '80s were replete with stories of beatings by union bullyboys and construction sites wrecked by mobs of union thugs. People regarded as "scabs" often felt the painful force of union anger.

To cross a union picket line in those days was to take your life in your hands.

In such an atmosphere, Wendell W. Young III stood out. He favored more-peaceful methods of getting what he wanted - pressure without violence, persuasion without fisticuffs, clever maneuvering and political influence.

And as the longtime leader of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, he usually got his way.

A former labor reporter who covered Young and his union for a number of years described him as "enlightened."

Wendell Young, president of Local 1776 for 43 years, a man whose vision of workers' rights led him to travel the world to advocate for labor causes, a liberal Democrat who supported like-minded politicians and causes, an environmentalist and an active civic and community leader, died of cancer Wednesday. He was 74 and lived in Lafayette Hill.

As a mere lad of 23, Wendell was elected president of what was then Retail Clerks Union Local 1357. Some of the more-conservative union members looked askance at this brash young man who opposed the war in Vietnam, favored civil rights and was an inveterate tree hugger.

But he took a union with about 4,000 members, mostly supermarket workers, and through his talent for organizing added more than 10,000 nonretail employees - insurance agents, health-care professionals, boot- and shoe-factory workers, barbers, hairdressers, cosmetologists and many others.

Because the membership no longer consisted strictly of supermarket employees, the name was changed in 1989 to United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1776. It now has more than 24,000 members.

Growing up in the household of such a driven man was something of a challenge, but one for which his son Wendell W. Young IV, now president of Local 1776, is grateful.

"He was a great guy to learn from," Wendell said.

But his father was such a busy man, not only with union matters but all of his other political and civic activities, that "he had trouble getting the day down to 24 hours."

The younger Wendell and his five brothers often had to go to picket lines or rallies to see their father. But they also pitched in wherever needed, including helping to distribute union literature.

"I was the only kid in my grammar-school class who knew who Cesar Chavez was," he said. The late embattled leader of the United Farm Workers Union often visited the Young home, and he and Wendell worked together on union causes.

"My father was the kind of person who, no matter how insurmountable an issue was, he would find a way around it," said his son, who became union president in 2005. "He never gave up. Nothing was too big.

"He would do anything to improve the lives of his members.

"Wendell W. Young III was a giant of the Philadelphia labor movement, and he was my friend," said U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah. "He was a man of action, a man of compassion and a fighter for social justice.

"He was the most progressive trade unionist of his age, and 100-percent committed to social and economic justice," Henry Nicholas, president of Philadelphia Hospital Workers Union Local 1199C, told the Inquirer.

Wendell Young was also a job creator. In the '80s, he supported the creation of Super Fresh Markets when A&P was closing stores, and established employee stock ownership that saved Acme Markets and thousands of jobs throughout the region.

He negotiated innovative contracts that provided employee benefits that included comprehensive health-care coverage, pension plans, child-care benefits, and higher-education assistance.

Wendell's political activities began when he worked in the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy in 1960. He was Democratic leader of the 35th Ward, and was a delegate to eight Democratic National Conventions. In 1972, he headed U.S. Sen. George McGovern's presidential campaign in Philadelphia.

Wendell grew up a rowhouse kid in Mayfair. While a sophomore at Northeast Catholic High School, he worked part time for an Acme market in the Northeast. He became active in the union, and his fellow workers elected him a shop steward.

He went on to St. Joseph's University, where he was a classmate of future mayor William J. Green. In 1962, he was elected president of the Retail Clerks Union, and the rest is union history.

Besides his wife, Katherine, and son Wendell, he is survived by five other sons, Brian, Scott, Eric, Brendan and Matthew, and 13 grandchildren.

Services: Funeral Mass 11 a.m. Monday at St. Philip Neri Church, 437 Ridge Pike, Lafayette Hill. Friends may call at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Boyd-Horrocks Funeral Home, 200 W. Germantown Pike, Norristown, and at 9:30 a.m. Monday at the church. Interment will be private.

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