SMLR Labor Historian Chronicles the Life of a Philadelphia Legend

By Steve Flamisch

Francis Ryan

Francis Ryan edited the memoirs of legendary Philadelphia labor leader Wendell W. Young III, who earned a master's degree in labor and employment relations at SMLR in 1992. Today, Ryan directs the master's program.

Ryan and Young

Ryan interviewed Young every Friday for more than three years at Young's home in Lafayette Hill. The men became close friends in the process. 

Secret Service agents fanned out on Market Street as hundreds of protestors waited for President Richard Nixon to arrive at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on October 20, 1972. 

Tensions were high across the city. The president’s economic policies were crushing many low-wage workers. The war still raged in Vietnam. And the election, pitting Nixon against Democrat George McGovern, loomed in just 18 days.

Wendell W. Young III, the hard-charging labor leader and McGovern’s handpicked campaign organizer in Philadelphia, expected trouble as he stood with a group of labor protestors. Police had towed his car 87 times from its legal parking space that year, and he suspected Mayor Frank Rizzo—his political nemesis and an ardent Nixon supporter—was pulling the strings.

When the president’s helicopter landed, things got ugly.

“I saw a police officer dragging a woman by the hair down the steps of Independence Hall,” Young said. “Another young man was sucker punched in the face by a Nixon supporter. He was knocked out cold on the sidewalk. It was in full view of the police, but no one made a move to arrest the man who punched him.”

Young exchanged words with the head of Rizzo’s Civil Disobedience Squad. The next thing he knew, a line of police horses backed into his group and pushing ensued.

Before long, he was in handcuffs.

Oral History

Young, who is regarded as one of America’s most important labor leaders of the late 20th century, recounted the story and hundreds more in a series of wide-ranging interviews with Francis Ryan, an assistant teaching professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR) who shares many similarities with the iconic union president.

Both men grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, a generation apart. (Young taught Ryan’s father in high school.) Both worked as supermarket clerks early in their careers and eventually joined the labor movement. Young received his master’s degree in labor and employment relations at SMLR in 1992. Today, Ryan heads the master’s program. 


Labor History in the Making

Philadelphia Mayor James H. J. Tate

Philadelphia Mayor James H. J. Tate (left) with Wendell W. Young III in 1967.

Wendell W. Young III

Young (left) with Teamsters leader Howard J. Gibbons in 1968.

Sen. George McGovern

Democratic presidential candidate and Sen. George McGovern speaks at a campaign rally in Philadelphia on September 13, 1972. From left: Sen. Joseph S. Clark Jr., Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp, McGovern (at podium), Sen. Ted Kennedy, Young.

They met during their union days and reconnected when Young was in his 70s. Dyslexia made it difficult for him to write, so he asked Ryan to help compile his memoirs. Starting in June 2009, they got together at Young’s home in Lafayette Hill every Friday for more than three years.

”I'd set up my computer so I could record our session and we’d start talking,” Ryan said. “Sometimes, I'd just ask Wendell what he wanted to talk about that day, and other times I'd have a list of questions. He had a nice table in the dining room of his house, and we would sit there next to each other.”

As Young talked about his union victories and classic battles with Mayor Rizzo, he would slip into character—imitating the voices of the people in his stories.

“Sometimes it was neighborhood-based figures like Philadelphia ward leader Herb McGlinchey, who slurred because he had a cigar dangling out of his mouth, or some of the Teamsters with Philly accents thick as any East End Cockney,” Ryan said. “One time he made me laugh so hard that my contact lens came out of my eye.”

The men became close friends. Ryan later transcribed the recordings and organized them into a book, The Memoirs of Wendell W. Young III: A Life in Philadelphia Labor and Politics.

Published by Temple University Press, the book takes readers on a first-person journey from the cash register where Young started as an Acme Markets clerk, to the office he occupied as president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Local 1776, to the jail cell where he spent 10 hours after getting arrested at the Nixon event.

Lasting Legacy

Young’s five-decade fight to improve the lives of blue collar Philadelphians resonates across the pages, including the landmark contract he negotiated in 1965 to tackle income inequality in Philly-area supermarkets.

“The contract deal specified that all workers in the stores be categorized as clerks, all starting at the same pay category, regardless of race or gender,” Ryan said. “This completely transformed the retail food industry in the region and marked a kind of major social change that had tangible impact for so many workers and their families, a fact that has been overlooked until now.”

Young also negotiated the region’s first contract clause protecting gay and lesbian supermarket workers from getting fired on the basis of their sexual identity—one of his proudest achievements. And, he stood in solidarity with Mexican farm workers in their quest for better working conditions during the grape and lettuce boycotts of the late 60s and early 70s.

“He is one of the most important examples of social justice unionism in our region,” Ryan said, referring to a kind of unionism that looks out for the wider community and not just the membership.

Although Young did not live to see his memoirs in print—he died of cancer on January 1, 2013 at the age of 74—he made an impact that is still felt in Philly and beyond.

“Wendell never lost his faith in the ability of ordinary people to work to shape their futures, to make their lives better, despite what the odds may seem,” Ryan said. “That is such an important message for our own times.” ■