The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast

The Labor President from Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter with Wendell Young IV-Part 1

October 16, 2020 Traci Dority-Shanklin Season 2 Episode 1
The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast
The Labor President from Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter with Wendell Young IV-Part 1
Show Notes Transcript

Wendell Young IV, UFCW Local 1776 president and International Foundation president, joins Traci for a lively discussion about diversity and his presidency. Wendell shares his life growing up in the labor movement with his father during the Civil Rights era and how watching those challenges prepared him for today with Black Lives Matter, TimesUp, and the coronavirus.

  •  01:21 – The Beginning: The Wendell Young IV Story
  • 04:27 – Growth: From Philadelphia to Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Beyond
  • 05:26 – Diversity: From Food Processing to Cannabis and Alcohol
  • 08:15 – A Woman’s Place is in Leadership at the UFCW
  • 11:23 – The 60’s & Today: Rallies, Protests, & Picket Lines
  • 13:19 – On the Frontlines with Covid-19
  • 15:40 – Before Black Lives Matter and TimesUp: Has Anything Really Changed?
  • 20:22 – The Proactive Approach to Diversity
  • 24:19 – The Story of Aunt Sylvia
Support the show


The Labor President from Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter with Wendell Young IV-Part 01

Narrator  0:03  

This is The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds podcast with Traci Dority-Shanklin. If you're interested in labor and union benefit funds, well, you've landed in the right place. We are a go-to source for all things union benefit fund related, and we are going to bring you interviews with key decision makers and fund professionals that guide these plans. They'll share their insights, experience, unique perspectives, all of the latest developments, and tips to unlock the mysteries of multiemployer benefit funds. Time is short, so let's get started.

Traci Dority-Shanklin  0:37  

My guest today is Wendell Young IV, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. The UFCW Local 1776 Keystone States represents 35,000 members across Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and West Virginia. Wendell is also a vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International, the current president and chair of the International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans' Board of Directors, and a member of the Executive and Strategic Initiative Steering Committees. Welcome, Wendell. 

Wendell Young  1:17  

Good morning, Traci, thanks for having me on the show today.

Traci Dority-Shanklin  1:21  

I'm very excited to have this conversation with you. So, what was really important to me and having this conversation to was really talked about your background as well as what's going on in America with Black Lives Matters and COVID. So, we live in interesting times, for sure. And I think the UFCW and specifically some of the stuff you've done with the International Foundation is really relevant to this conversation. So, let's start with where you began your career. I know you began working as a field representative. Where did you start? And what union did you start working for first?

Wendell Young  2:04  

When I was a teenager, I absolutely loved my dad's job. He was a union official. He was president of what was then called Local 1357 of the Retail Clerks Union in Philadelphia; our union was a Philadelphia union. And I really liked what my dad did, you know, I was a child of the 60s. And my father was a real rebel, a progressive, a liberal, who didn't just embrace but really advocated for equal rights, women's rights, gay rights, he was an anti-Vietnam War advocate. He was one of those guys. And so, my earliest memories were of rallies, protests, picket lines, peace demonstrations in DC, anti-war demonstrations, civil rights demonstrations, and I couldn't wait to be a union member. 

Wendell Young  2:53  

So, while as a teenager, I had a lot of odd jobs. As soon as I was 16, and was able to, I went and became a retail clerk in a Penn Fruit supermarket in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Philadelphia. And back then it was referred to as the Badlands. And I worked at a Penn Fruit store. And I was a teamster. Teamsters represented a small group of stores in Philadelphia, and had a very good working relationship with the Retail Clerks Union. And, you know, my father thought it would be a good idea if I worked for a company that was not in the same union that he was head of. And it was a great experience. 

Wendell Young  3:28  

I couldn't wait to go to my first union meeting at the Teamsters Hall and I still have my membership card from the Teamsters. My very first membership card. Penn Fruit didn't make it, so I went on to work at Acme markets where I became a member of 1357, for the first time a retail clerk member. And about a year and a half, two years later, they merged with the meat cutters to form the UFCW. And, you know, around the same time that union came as a result of that merger, I was elected shop steward in my store in Northeast Philadelphia by the members. We had a three-way election. I won that election, and went on to become a shop steward, and I already been volunteering, doing volunteer organizing work, and community, and constituency work, you know, as I said, a very progressive union. And so, they had their fingers and hands into a lot of different pots, so to say in terms of activity and actions, and - and I volunteer for everything I could, and when it came to organizing projects, and they needed help, you know, I volunteered for those. 

Wendell Young  4:27  

And in 1983, I had my first opportunity to become a full-time staff member as an organizer in the union, and that's where my union representative career began, other than being shop steward, and from there I worked pretty much, mostly every job in the local one time or another. And in 2004, I was elected President of UFCW Local 1776. By then, our union had merged a lot as you know throughout the country, following the - the '79 merger that created UFCW there were a lot of mergers and regionally our area is the same. So, our local went from being a Philadelphia area local to a central and eastern Pennsylvania local gradually. And then more recently, just a few years ago, we had the biggest merger of all, and for our local - Local 1776 merged with Local 23, which covered most of all Western PA, we were all Central and Eastern PA, and our union today's as you said in the intro is 35,000 members. 

Wendell Young  5:26  

We're very diverse in all ways. While most of our members live and work in Pennsylvania, we do have some workers in the Morgantown Ohio Valley area of West Virginia and Ohio, and a small group up in the Hudson Valley area of New York. But other than that, it's almost the entirety of Pennsylvania, and industry-wide we're retail clerks and supermarkets and pharmacies. We're in food processing, manufacturing, non-food manufacturing. We also have within the food processing, a lot of meat processing, and some slaughterhouses. We have nursing homes. We have offices, professional office employees, professional employees. And one of the things we've added recently is the medical cannabis industry. You know, Pennsylvania's, you know, been a little later than some states to the cannabis industry. And right now, we have somewhat restrictive medical cannabis. You know, we're in the forefront of that as the union goes. We've signed up several dozen companies to date and have successfully negotiated a number of contracts in the industry. So, that's a new area for us. 

Wendell Young  6:32  

And it fits very nicely with another area we represent. Pennsylvania is one of the few states that still controls all sale of alcohol including running over 600 of its own retail stores, the state-runs, and we represent all the employees in those stores are at 3,500 of them statewide. And you know, alcohol is the most abused drug on the planet. And our members do an excellent job at making sure it only gets in the right hands and is retailed responsibly and safely. And so, you know, we think we're the perfect union with that kind of background expertise and training to be part of the introduction of medical marijuana, which we're sure is going to lead to adult-use marijuana soon. Our union's also diverse in terms of the kind of people we represent with all those different trades, industries, geography, we're geographically diverse, but culturally, ethnically, we're very diverse. And so, we're not just in one industry. We're not just in one part of the state. And we represent a true representation of our community as a whole in terms of - as my dad used to say black, white, and galvanized. 

Traci Dority-Shanklin  7:39  

Mm-hmm. I like that. So, you mentioned your dad and your union legacy. That is something that Wendell and I share because my dad was also a labor leader with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. So, they were good friends and colleagues for many, many years.

Wendell Young  7:59  

I have many fond memory of the first time I met your father, and hanging out with him and always around union conferences, and a great deal of respect for him. 

Traci Dority-Shanklin  8:11  

Thank you. 

Wendell Young  8:12  

Please tell him I said, hello. 

Traci Dority-Shanklin  8:15  

So, during your father's time in the UFCW, you mentioned the civil rights movement, the women's rights, gay rights, and so growing up in the union family, you must see the parallels and similarities for today with Black Lives Matters. And even I think the TimesUp movement would be relevant. Can you talk a little bit about those similarities and what you have been doing in your local, and I guess, as a member of the International to really move the ball forward?

Wendell Young  8:46  

Well, our local's always been considered, you know, very liberal, progressive at the forefront. You know, back in the 60s, you know, it was not necessary. It was - it wasn't generally popular for someone in my dad's position to be against the Vietnam War, to be in favor of gay rights, to be in favor of women's rights and inequality. In fact, in the 50s and even into the early 60s, a lot of labor contracts had different wage rates for women - lower wage rates, written right into the contract for the same jobs as men. The prevailing logic was that a woman's place was at home, and if they're going to come to work, they probably weren't the primary wage earner. So, they didn't need as much money as men and - and a whole lot of other wrong directed thinking, but that's the way it was. And there was even a lot of pushback. I'll give you one example. 

Wendell Young  9:33  

You know, my father worked hard to make sure that women, including unwed women, had health care coverage in case they were pregnant and had a child and that almost had him run out of office. So, the members are so outraged that he changed the health plan rules to make sure that women had benefits even if they weren't married when it came to pregnancy for them and their newborn child that they tried to have them removed from office - to impeach him. And you know, obviously it failed, and he went on to prevail. But, you know, he was that way, you know, he felt that you have to do what's right, and whether it's popular or not. And he faced the same kind of pushback that you see today. You know, whether it's about Black Lives Matter, or, you know, treatment of women with the whole MeToo movement, or even the politicization of masks with COVID-19. 

Wendell Young  10:26  

You have these deniers, and these people that I guess they only watch FOX News and listen to Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump, and Hannity, but the reality is, they are living in an alternate reality. And they - they really are mean towards the people that do take COVID-19 serious and wear masks or - or support Black Lives Matter. And we see it with taking a knee at football games or other athletic events. You know, if you support anybody that wants to pay respects that way, to a cause or movement, you know, others - conservatives really mistreat people - he faced a lot of that. But it prevailed within the union, he established when it was not popular to do so a black caucus. He had a group called the Jewish Brigade, that, you know, because we had a company called Food Fair, which had a lot of Jewish employees. You know, he was an early advocate for rights for people who had immigrated here. 

Wendell Young  11:23  

And I saw - I see those parallels with today. I saw when I was younger, the way he and our union was treated for supporting such causes. And you see it in today's world. In many ways, things haven't changed enough. I mean, they've changed a lot, but they haven't changed enough that we still have to have these movements today. But what I do see, and what I really like right now is, you know, as I said earlier, I grew up in the 60s and the 70s. And, you know, that's when I saw a lot of people involved - a lot of young people involved and it made a difference. We made a lot of progress because of that. And this is the first time since then, I've seen a lot of young people involved. I see it amongst our members and our union. We have - we are the youngest union of all the unions because of our retail membership. Most people go to work in retail in their teens. And, you know, while a lot of them move on to college or other jobs, you know, many stay obviously. And so, we do have a large constituency of young members, and we see that activism in them right now. We see that they - they now care about something, you know, they've been through a lot in the past, you know, a couple decades and, you know, a stagnant economy for working class people, declining standards in terms of wages and benefits, and not a lot of opportunity for working class people. 

Wendell Young  12:33  

And young people, you know, they look at that. And they also see the way, you know, a lot of them grew up through school in integrated schools. And you know, they don't see opportunities for themselves just like other folks haven't seen opportunities, and they're willing to go out and help fight for them. You look at those crowds today, I see a lot of people who are not just black people at a Black Lives Matter rally and aren't just Latinos and aren't just women at MeToo events. And we haven't seen that in this country, so I think we are going to see a lot of change now like we saw in the 60s and 70s. I think it's going to be good for our country once we get through this - this challenging moment. So, I do see a lot of parallels and COVID-19 really brought it to bear because it has had a big impact on it because it's affecting working class people more than others, and our union's a great example. 

Wendell Young  13:19  

You know, of our 35,000 members, despite stay-at-home orders here in Pennsylvania, you know, our - our members mostly were considered essential because they worked in retail food, retail pharmacies, food production, nursing homes, you know, they went to work when almost everybody else stayed home. The good thing is they were able to go to work. The difficult thing is they were exposed to COVID-19. So, they learned early on in March and April, you know why it was important to protect themselves, and why masks was important. I think they're - they're more informed and more educated than the average person out there. And they face the ugly people every day at work. You know, there's incidents every day that takes place, even today, after everything that's happened was a lot worse a month or two ago, but it's still happening where people don't want to wear masks when they come into one of these places, and actually, you know, the place is open to the public, the retail stores, and the pharmacies and you know, they face that kind of pushback. So, there are a lot of parallels to what you saw in the 60s and 70s. 

Wendell Young  14:19  

And - and today and, you know, this is for people that are - that are upper middle income, management-level people, you know, wealthier people, while I'm sure it's affecting everybody economically, people who work for a living generally live paycheck-to-paycheck. And if they're out of work because of COVID-19, or they're underemployed, this is impacting them more than others, and especially people who have recently immigrated here. You know, maybe their parents immigrated here and they're here, they're the first-generation people, their - their families are still, you know, trying to achieve that American dream and relying on each other. And if one or two or three of them are out of work, it affects the whole extended family. And of course, in a lot of cases you have multigenerational living arrangements, and so they're also more impacted and susceptible to contracting COVID-19. 

Wendell Young  15:06  

So, COVID-19’s become a huge health issue for a lot of folks in that situation as well as, uh, economic issue that can affect the whole extended family. And we represent a lot of those people. We have, especially in our food processing, a lot of recently immigrated people. And it's an area where we focused a lot of time and resources to help them with their immigration status, to help them in terms of contract terms, to help protect them, generally, but also through COVID-19. And it's something that we've been very sensitive to and very attentive to.

Traci Dority-Shanklin  15:40  

So, you've talked about the diverse workers in - within the UFCW, and you touched a bit on what you guys are doing to support the members that are impacted by COVID. But if anything is happening within the UFCW to adapt support in the workplace during the Black Lives Matters movement. Is there - are there particular things that have been implemented? Has it - has anything been changed?

Wendell Young  16:08  

You know, I would say in our workplaces, there's nothing it's changed. There is, as you well know, most labor contracts contain, you know, really good anti-discrimination language. So, the kind of things that go on and a lot of workplaces usually don't go on in a workplace where there's collective bargaining, and especially within the UFCW because nationally, we're a very diverse union, but also in our local. And so, you know, we work very hard to make sure that we don't just have the simplest of anti-discrimination language, we have, you know, very good concrete language. And we also within the UFCW, both internationally and - and also locally, in our local have set up constituency groups. 

Wendell Young  16:51  

You know, you have the Minority Coalition. It used to be called the Black Caucus. Today, we call it the Minority Coalition, United Latinos, we have Outreach, which is the newest of the constituency groups, which is, you know, for the LGBTQ community. In fact, I'm very proud our secretary-treasurer, Michelle Kessler, is the President or the chairperson of Outreach nationally for our international for our UFCW, and - and there's the Women's Network. So, you know, these groups are each active and advocating for and promulgating, you know, rights for each of those constituency groups. And therefore, as a whole, the UFCW has always been out in the forefront. 

Wendell Young  17:30  

And when I say the UFCW, I mean, the National Union and our local of these issues, you know, having said that, you know, we still run into problems in some workplaces, and with some employers and - and I think, because of all that constituency group work, we're better at handling that and responding to it in the workplace. We do shop steward trainings all the time that makes sure that the stewards understand where we are on this. And, you know, if a steward comes to the table, you know, maybe elected by their co-workers with some sort of bias, you know, as I said, we're very diverse. So, we have some - some rural red conservative areas in our state where our members come from, some of them are a little biased. You know, they either through that training get with the program, or we're not going to have them as a shop store. You know, we need our shop search. We need our union reps on staff representing everyone, regardless of their - their color, their identification, or their - how they identify in terms of their sexuality, what their religious beliefs are, anything, political or anything. 

Wendell Young  18:33  

You know, even before, all this activity around Black Lives Matter or MeToo, we were already doing that kind of work within the workplace. But now more than ever, you know, we're out there being very supportive. There's a number of actions and activities that have taken place some through the labor movement - some not throughout Pennsylvania, where we've lent our support. We were early on with a statement to our members to make sure they understood where we are on things, and to the elected officials here in Pennsylvania. You know, we look forward to participating as the months go on, in upcoming demonstrations and protests and support for the different constituency groups. 

Wendell Young  19:14  

But you know, those things are all important, but what's most important is how you actually conduct your business. And from that perspective, we have a long history of, you know, seeking leaders within our union, whether they're on staff or on our executive board, that are reflective of our membership. And so, if you were to look at, you know, our executive board, which is quite a large one at 42 people, including myself as the principal officer, you'll see a very, very diverse and inclusive board. That's very reflective of our membership. And then as I said, it starts with the training in the workplace. It starts with what you negotiate in your collective bargaining agreement, and then how you implement that stuff and follow through on it day-to-day in the workplace to make sure that - that, you know, whether it's a grievance and how it's being handled, or whether it's a job promotion someone's seeking within the bargaining unit, that you know, all that teaching, all that education, and all that philosophy is used so that, you know, everyone has a fair shot at opportunities, regardless of, you know, what demographic profile they fit.

Traci Dority-Shanklin  20:22  

I love that. It sounds like you had a program that you guys actually put into place to encourage diversity within your local. You talked about training in the workplace and then implementing the promotional pathways. Can you talk a little more and give us a bit more detail about that program? Was it proactive? Did you know you were doing it?

Wendell Young  20:48  

So, it is proactive. And I would say it's - it's not that we have a formal written program, we certainly have, uh, policy statements and mission statements. And if you were to read our employee handbook, and other material we put out to our members and executive board, you'll see that philosophy embedded in the language. You know, human beings by nature, are and I'll try and use a simple example. Human beings by nature are social beings. And we tend to socialize with the people that are much like us, right. So, like one of the things I know, this is such a basic elementary example. But like I noticed a long time ago when we would have a break in our executive board meeting, which is a lot of staff and rank and file, that people who were alike went and sat at the lunch tables together. So, the white folks were sitting together; the Latinos were sitting together; the black people were sitting together. 

Wendell Young  21:45  

And so, during one of these meetings, this goes back quite a few years, I asked everybody stopped talking for a minute, but I wanted to ask a question. And I asked them, "Why are you doing that? Look around, right?" I said, "So, I have a request for now on when we break, let's mix it up on purpose, purposely go find someone who you normally don't sit with, and sit with them, and get to know them better than you already know them." And I still had to go back and make that announcement a few times in the year that followed. But like, it's simple things like that in a workplace, you know, whether it's a labor union, a cafeteria, that you have to start with the simple elementary things. But beyond that, you know, long before I was even president, you know, because I learned it from my father, you know, when we think about who's retiring in the future in the local, we - we think about, you know, hiring, you know, if we have a purpose, we're - we're wired to purposely seek that diversity. If you don't work at it, it's not going to come automatically. 

Wendell Young  22:47  

So, I'll use an example. One of our what we call lead reps today, you know, I recruited her. I went and met with her. She had been with the union 15 years. She was a part-time, Acme supermarket clerk. She was Latino. And she was out of a part of Philadelphia, very difficult part of the city, and she was completely shocked. And she said, "Well, why are you talking to me about, you know, coming to work for the union." I said, "Because you - you've been a steward for a number of years now. You're part time. We have a lot of part time members. You're Latino. We're gaining in Latino membership." And she said, "Why, you know, I never even thought of coming to work for the union." And, she was really intimidated by the idea. And so, to bring somebody like that on means that we have to go a little more extra to make sure that they get the training; that they get the background they need. We saw that she had in her gut, in her heart, all the right stuff. She didn't see that for herself. She didn't have the confidence in that. We had to help bring that out and - and through training and education. And - and over the years because she's still with us, and she's moved up in positions over time; she's got a very important position now. And even now, we just in this past week I just authorized, she's going to - actually we're sending her to a leadership development program at Cornell University over the next two years as part of our ongoing training and education. You know, people like that if you don't have a purposeful, you know, a purposeful intention to go out and hire and recruit that way, it's not going to happen on its own, and it needs nurturing. 

Wendell Young  24:19  

You know, it's no different than when my father, in his early days back in the 60s merged with a local, it was first chance he had to have the first union business agent as we call them back then. And I still remember to me, she was Aunt Sylvia, Sylvia Zimmerman. She was the first female business agent in our union. And he faced a lot of pushback for it. And he said, "Look, most of the women - most of the members in retail are women. And they're part time." Sylvia worked at a company called Lift Brothers, and then went to work for the union we merged that our local merged with back then, and she was like the office person - took all the members calls. My father said, "You know, more about these contracts and these members then - then the reps do," and she's like, "It's not my place. That's a man's job." He said, "We're going to change that." And so are you - in going back, again, those parallels to the 60s has always worked to try and, you know, strive for that diversity and it does work. But it also means, you know, whether, again, whether people are - no matter what color or nationality or - or any demographic profile they come from, it's important they rise to the occasion with all that support and meet the challenge and do the job. So, you have to be fair them in all ways, including some, you know, like any other job if things aren't working out, you also have to know when to take another path.

Traci Dority-Shanklin  25:36  

That's awesome. I love that story. I think it's so important for people to hear that you have to be proactive. If we are going to make the change to be more inclusive and have this equal playing field, it has to be proactive. 

Traci Dority-Shanklin  25:53  

And this is a perfect place for us to pause our conversation. Wendell has done an excellent job sharing his background and history with the UFCW Local 1776, taking us from his father's tenure in the civil rights era of the 60s and 70s all the way through to the present with Black Lives Matter and TimesUp. Please join us for the second half of our conversation with UFCW Local 1776 president and International Foundation president, Wendell Young IV, where we discuss his tenure at the International Foundation, and the problems facing pension funds due to the impact of COVID-19.

Traci Dority-Shanklin  26:32  

Thanks again for joining the conversation where listeners connect with leading experts throughout the financial and investment world. Be part of the change. And that's it for this week's episode of The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds podcast. We love to hear from you. And if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, head over to, and let us know. Thank you for joining us, and we look forward to next time.

Transcribed by