A Life in Philadelphia Labor and PoliticsWendell W. Young III
Edited and with an Introduction by Francis Ryan
Philadelphia native Wendell W. Young III was one of the most important American labor leaders in the last half of the twentieth century. An Acme Markets clerk in the 1950s and ’60s, he was elected top officer of the Retail Clerks Union when he was twenty-four. His program of social justice unionism sought to advance wages while moving beyond collective bargaining to improve the conditions of the working-class majority, whether in a union or not. Young quickly gained a reputation for his independence, daring at times to publicly criticize the policies of the city’s powerful AFL-CIO leadership and tangle with the city’s political machine.
Editor Francis Ryan, whose introduction provides historical context, interviewed Young about his experiences working in the region’s retail and food industry, measuring the changes over time and the tangible impact that union membership had on workers. Young also describes the impact of Philadelphia’s deindustrialization in the 1970s and ’80s and recounts his activism for civil rights and the anti-war movements as well as on John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign.
The Memoirs of Wendell W. Young III provides the most extensive labor history of late twentieth-century Philadelphia yet written.
“ Francis Ryan has brought to life a remarkable work and a major resource on community-based unionism. Wendell Young’s words tell the stories of one of the most important service industry unions in the country, but also of a tireless activist for human rights. A central player in late twentieth-century politics and the clash between business unionists and those advocating for labor to lead the fight for justice, Young charts a vision for the future that makes clear that Philadelphia’s deep history of social-justice unionism remains alive.”—Sharon McConnell-Sidorick, author of Silk Stockings and Socialism: Philadelphia’s Radical Hosiery Workers from the Jazz Age to the New Deal
“ Wendell Young’s account of his career in the retail clerks’ union provides a window into the world of labor leadership at the local level. In Young’s era, most up-and-coming elected officials just stuck to the party line on civil rights, war and peace, nuclear proliferation, and apartheid in South Africa. Instead, Young bravely embraced a wide range of progressive causes, despite opposition from cold warriors in the AFL-CIO and co-workers in Philadelphia who did not share his enthusiasm for social justice. Anyone in labor today who is trying to balance the demands of bargaining, organizing, and day-to-day worker representation with the need for broader political activism should read this revealing memoir.”—Steve Early, former International Representative, Communications Workers of America and author of Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City
"Ryan provides key historical detail for Young’s wide-ranging and engaging recollections, providing context for readers who didn’t experience these years. For those who did, the memoir offers new perspective on the plight of working people as cities shrank, employers vanished or were absorbed by conglomerates, and competition expanded globally. The book describes how similar and interdependent the inner workings of labor and politics were in the period through the eyes of a man who saw the connections and cultivated them to benefit workers."
— Broad Street Review
"(T)his is an insider look from someone at the center of the labor movement in one of the largest cities in the country. Followers of politics can trace the major shifts and interests of parties over recent generations. For the civically minded individual, the book can be read as a guide on how to build a coalition to accomplish meaningful change. For those with a connection to Philadelphia, it is the story of a neighborhood guy from a rowhome in the northeast, a story of Acme, A&P, Super Fresh, Frank Rizzo, Lit Brothers, the MOVE bombing, the Phillies, the Eagles, the Bulletin, and the Inquirer.... Young’s voice (is) strong: his morality shines through.... (T)here is a constant expression of heart, compassion, optimism, and goals for the working person."
— Write Now Philly
"The Memoirs of Wendell W. Young III, edited by labor historian Francis Ryan, offers a rich perspective on his many political triumphs and defeats.... 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.... 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.... Tales of Young’s epic battles with (Mayor) Rizzo are among the most compelling parts of the book.... 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.... 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."
"Wendell Young’s lively memoir is a welcomed addition to the historiography of labor and social movements in the second half of the twentieth century.... This memoir, ably edited and introduced by Rutgers University’s Francis Ryan, provides a first-person account that will interest both scholars and organizers.... This remarkable book will enrich readers’ understanding of the history of economic and workplace justice."
" Almost sixty hours of labor historian Francis Ryan’s interviews of Young, coupled with Ryan’s masterful editing, transformed the labor and political leader’s astute rendering of his past into a useful labor history for union activists, historians, and reformers.... Wendell Young’s emergence as the leading advocate and practitioner of social unionism, including workers’ ownership of the enterprises in which they work, resulted in a lasting example of a consciously social democratic perspective of history and of possibilities for the present and the future that students, historians, labor activists and their allies will do well to consider seriously."
—Labor Studies Journal
AFSCME's Philadelphia StoryFrancis Ryan