Critics have a point when they talk about how leadership in some union locals turns into a family dynasty, with sons easily taking over leadership from their fathers, thereby nearly erasing the chance for any kind of elected union democracy. Wendell Young 4th said it definitely was not that easy for him to become the leader of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, following in the footsteps of his father, Wendell Young 3d.
In fact, he said, his father actively discouraged him from union work.
When Young was a youngster, he remembers, his father was rarely home, always too busy with negotiations or union business. Young recalled one time when the whole family was gathered for a barbecue to celebrate his birthday. But his Dad had to leave for negotiations. Heartbroken, Young put up a fit and his Dad wound up taking him to a bargaining session, where someone, mercifully, had some magic markers to keep him occupied.
"I was bored," Young said.
"When I was a kid, if I wanted to spend time with my Dad, you literally had to go to a demonstration, to a rally, to a picket line. I remember I spent some school holidays on the Lit Brothers picket line. And all the ladies out front were arguing over which door, I'd be picketing on and how long I'd be there and I got more doughnuts and hot chocolate day after day. I spent every day on the picket line and that's where I learned what the term scab was and I became one of the loudest [yelling at the replacement workers]. I was about 9-years-old. I became the little favorite of all the ladies that worked at Lits."
But, he said, when he graduated from high school, his father urged him to go to college or to join one of the businesses run by relatives.
"They had nice homes, nice cars. They had boats on the river and houses at the shore," he said. "Who wouldn't want that? But I also loved my Dad and the more I learned about my Dad, the more I became proud of the work he did. There's something most outsiders don't understand. My father tried to talk me out of this."
Young insisted and his father did help him get a job at a supermarket - at Fifth and Luzerne Streets in North Philadelphia, a store represented by a different union, the Teamsters.
"His thing was, `If you really want to work in this business and be a member of the union, you have to earn it from the bottom up. Everybody doesn't just walk into a nice store in Northeast Philadelphia and get the job, so you are going to start like everyone else,'" Young said, quoting his father.
In less than a year, that store closed and Young witnessed, for the first time, the devastation of workers losing their jobs. He remembered that a manager committed suicide and other workers were in dire straits. Eventually, many of the workers, including Young, wound up at other union supermarket stores. Young joined Acme, where he said, at age 18, his co-workers elected him shop steward. That, he said, had nothing to do with his father. He began to volunteer as an organizer, despite, he said, his father's objections.
And, when he finally got a staff job in the union at, he said, the insistence of his fellow organizers, his father was not pleased. "When I did come, he made it clear that he was going to make it harder for me than anybody else," Young said. Young said his father told him that he would not "be a fair employer, because he didn't want anybody to ever assume that I got something just because I was his son. It was a very difficult process I went through. We had our moments. It was a tough struggle."
Young 3d also told his son that, unless he was dead, he would never quit in the middle of a term so the executive board could put a crony in office, especially if the crony turned out to be his son, Young said. When Young 3d decided, because of health reasons, not to seek another term, he insisted that Young 4th run for office.
"So I stood for an election," Young said. "Of course no one else stood for election, so I won by acclamation."