Wendell Young IV, UFCW Local 1776 president and International Foundation president, joins Traci Dority-Shanklin for the second and final part of their conversation. Wendell opens up about his tenure as president of the International Foundation and the problems facing pension funds due to Covid-19.

02:04 – What Is the International Foundation?

04:51 – The Benefits of the International Foundation

06:44 – The Economic Upheaval of Covid-19

09:50 – It Ain’t Over Yet and Here’s Why

12:49 – On the Front Line with the UFCW

18:36 – The Benefit of Collective Bargaining

19:42 – JBS: A Coronavirus Success Story

23:02 – The UFCW Leads the Way: Why Education Matters

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 the latest developments, and tips to unlock the mysteries of multiemployer benefit fund. Time is short. So, let’s get started.

Traci Shanklin  0:37 

Welcome to the podcast. On November 15 through the 18th of this year, the International Foundation was scheduled to host its annual conference in Honolulu, Hawaii. Due to COVID-19, this year’s conference was canceled. The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, as it’s formally known, is a nonprofit dedicated to research and education for employee benefit plans, and provides networking for 8,200 organizations and 32,000 individual members that impacts 25 million people across the United States and Canada. Well, it can’t come close to replacing the IF conference.

Traci Shanklin  1:18 

My guest today is Wendell Young, IV, the current president of the UFCW Local 1776 and the current president of the International Foundation. In the first part of our discussion, Wendell and I talked about his background, and the history of the UFCW Local 1776 from his father’s tenure during the civil rights movement of the 1960s all the way to the present with Black Lives Matters and MeToo along with a peek into how UFCW Local 1776 approaches diversity. Now, join us for the second half where Wendell and I discuss his tenure at the International Foundation, and the problems facing pension funds due to the impact of COVID-19.

Traci Shanklin  2:04 

So, you’re the president of the International Foundation, which is a massive honor, and you’re the president at a very unique time in history. So, for those of you who don’t know, the International Foundation provides research, education, and networking opportunities to the diverse employee benefits community. So, Wendell, can you share a little bit about what the IF does? Why it’s important, and how you came to be the president?

Wendell Young  2:33 

Well, first, the found – of the International Foundation Employee Benefit Plans, and I’ll just call it the International Foundation from here on, they’ve been around nearly 70 years, through tough economies, wars, recessions, and now COVID-19. It is the only organization really of its kind anywhere throughout the United States, Canada, and then we’ve really begun becoming a global organization in recent years. Because, you know, so there’s so many global companies that are dealing with health care and retirement benefits and benefits in general, that, you know, operate on multiple continents, in multiple countries, but they are absolutely dedicated to education. And you know, what’s really great is this is an organization that came together, and think about the times you’re in right now, this is an organization came together a long, long time ago, where, you know, people who were generally adversaries, labor and management, came together and formed an organization dedicated to their mutual interests. And that is education around, you know, how to deliver, you know, the best quality, employee benefits, health care, and retirement benefits primarily, but that’s expanded over – over time.

Wendell Young  3:49 

And so today, you know, you have union trustees, management, trustees, administrators, plan professionals, investment managers, accountants, consultants, actuaries that make up the membership. And so, it’s very diverse in terms of discipline. But the members of the Foundation are also very diverse and in many the same ways I talked about our own union, where they come from, and so it’s a very important organization. It’s more important now than ever, especially because how COVID-19 is going to, is, and will impact employees and the people that are members of the Foundation, regardless of which side of the fence or which discipline you come from. It’s all about, you know, employee compensation and benefits. And they are providing the best, most accurate, you know, up-to-date information and broadest amount of information available anywhere as a source. So, I encourage you if you know if you are a member, go to their website and take advantage of it.

Wendell Young  4:51 

Obviously, the Foundation is a lot broader and bigger than just you know, COVID-19 and its impact on employee benefits and retirement plans. It’s a very comprehensive organization. But if you’re not a member, you know, I’m not – I didn’t come here to do a sales pitch, but you know, I think it’s – it’s a – it’s a – you get a lot of value for the dollar. You know, I require our trustees, you know, our staff who are appointed as trustees to the various health and pension funds benefit funds to our local, they’re required to go to two educational programs a year with the Foundation. And for the rather low membership costs, you know, we feel and the cost for those educational conferences, we feel we get a lot of value.

Wendell Young  5:34 

And I have lots of examples where myself, I came back from Foundation conferences over the years. And I found that it made me a better trustee in terms of being able to negotiate with providers, and negotiate for employee benefits, and administer and run the trust funds as a trustee. And so that’s why, you know, I absolutely required of all our union appointed trustees. So, as you said, it’s also a great networking opportunity. When you, you know, look around the country, I don’t think there’s another place where so many people from all those different perspectives and disciplines come together. You know, and it’s not just about the annual conference, the annual education conference, which is the biggest event. You know, we put on over 70, some years close to 100 educational programs a year throughout the United States and Canada. And we also do contract programs for companies, unions, organizations, trust funds, where they want specialized education that’s geared to their specific issue or fund or membership. And they do a great job at those contract programs as well.

Traci Shanklin  6:44 

You started talking about the IF and then you pivoted already to COVID. And so, I’d like to talk a little bit about that the social and economic upheaval that the coronavirus has – and how it has impacted the multiemployer pension plans. Can you given your role with the IF – can you speak broadly about the economic impact that COVID-19 is having on multiemployer benefit plans?

Wendell Young  7:13 

Well, I’m not sure. You know, this isn’t over. So, I don’t know what the ultimate impact’s going to be. But to date, we certainly saw you know what happened this past spring, just from looking at it just from an investment perspective. We all saw the turmoil in the markets and obviously, you know, pension plans, and to the extent they have reserves, welfare plans, invest those surplus monies in a pension plan, that surplus are needed. You know, I don’t have to tell your audience why it’s important, but we’ve all seen the impact. And while we can look at the market, at back to maybe where we were a little bit above where we were, as we speak today, although I haven’t looked at today’s ticker, but – but as it ended Friday, you know, compared to where the year started, the money lost in betweens been tough on a pension industry, retirement plan industry, that’s already been through a really tough time.

Wendell Young  8:07 

And while a lot of us look at that as it’s been a tough time, you know, because of 2008 and 9 and how big and deep that recession was, you know, I think everyone really knows it goes back, you know, longer that you come off some of the go-go years prior to 2000. And during those seven, eight years, you know, we were, obviously had returns more than anybody anticipated. But really beginning back in 2000, and then again, got hit really been 2008, 9, retirement plans in this country have really taken a shellacking. And, you know, there’s – there’s stalled efforts to have reforms or bailouts approved by Congress. And that’s not going anywhere anytime soon under this administration, and the polarization between our House and Senate. So, there’s still a lot of very troubled plans. A lot of plans have already gone through ways to limit benefits, cut benefits, and I’m afraid that what’s happened just recently, and is going to lead to another round of that.

Wendell Young  9:07 

And my own local, and I know of others all around the country, and with the International, you know, plans that are as a result of just the past few months what happened due to COVID-19, and the – the turmoil in the markets have already started either implementing or considering plans to cut costs going forward. Let’s face it, you’re talking about cutting costs in the pension plan, you’re talking about, you know, reducing or limiting or altering the benefits in some way. So again, another example how COVID-19 is hitting working class people harder than others. And of course, you know, as more workers have some or all their money in defined contribution plans, you know, it’s – it’s had the same effect on those individual DC or 401k plans.

Wendell Young  9:50 

So, you know, this isn’t over yet. You know, the doctors and the scientists said we’d see a spike in the summer. We did, and they say, told us in the beginning and then still saying now that this coming winter is going to be even worse, you know, globally, you see what’s happening in the global markets, and the United States, the markets have weathered a little bit better because of the support they’ve gotten from the Fed. That level support hasn’t happened internationally, I think it’s – it’s – it’s going to be really difficult for our country to continue that level of support sustained while globally on the international markets that’s not happening, and they’re struggling at, uh, I think, at a higher degree. And I’m not an investment consultant, so that’s just my own read on things. But what it all adds up to is I’m concerned about the impact on people’s long-term retirement accounts.

Wendell Young  10:42 

You know, what they’re going to be able to depend on, whether they’re retiring in five years, 10 years, or 20 or 30 years, I think this is going to have a significant impact. And it’s not just what took place in the last few months, I really believe we’re in for a, you know, a two or three-year event here with until a proven vaccination. It’s one thing to say, “Hey, we have a vaccination.” It’s another thing to see how well it actually works with the general population globally. And then, of course, distributing it and getting enough people to take it to develop the level of immunity we need, you know, that’s really two to four-year process. And so, I think our markets are going to be affected by everything related to COVID. And the ripple effects of it for a number of years. And the question you originally asked, I think, you know, obviously, it’s going to be kind of dark and stormy for the next couple years in my opinion. But we really won’t know the answer until we get through it. Either way, I don’t think it’s gonna be good for working class people.

Traci Shanklin  11:41 

Yeah, it’s troubling. I think the volatility too does not – certainly it is not helpful to anyone planning retirement anytime soon.

Wendell Young  11:52 

Let’s not forget, if your sole retirement savings is in a DC plan, and you’re not working because of COVID-19. Either you or somebody else has caused you to be set home for some that time, you’re not generating contributions. And – and then people will tap those – those funds to get by. So, even when – even when there’s cycles of recovery from the losses that money is going to be used to service their – their – their – their loan that they took out, or if they just took the money out period subject to penalty, and then you’re going to have in the same in the DB environment, where people have to find benefit. Again, if you’re not working, it’s going to limit the amount of contributions going in at some point. So, you know, the time people didn’t work earlier this year. You know, they didn’t get contributions in, and they may have tapped some of the money. And then the same thing is going to happen in cycles as we go through this winter. I’m concerned and into the next year.

Traci Shanklin  12:49 

So, with workplace uncertainty in this COVID age, and I think that you’ve touched on this, but the UFCW representing service workers, grocery store workers that are on the front line, how has that part impacted – I guess – how has COVID impacted that part of the UFCW and its membership?

Wendell Young  13:12 

We had been significantly impacted. You know, when – when this first broke, and I don’t want to get too deep – I don’t want to get deep into politics. But let’s be clear about something here. Our government – our president knew this was coming. We now know there were memos, briefing memos, as early as late last fall before the winter even said in that were ignored. Therefore, we were not prepared. You know, I remember with the SARS scare and the N1H1 and – or H1N1 – whichever it was called, you know how we were getting advisories, bulletins as employers and unions, especially in our food processing and our retail, on steps to take and there were, you know, education opportunities to remind people about hygiene and sanitation and – and ways to mitigate spread and all that. And even with the Ebola – any of us that paid attention with Ebola, we saw how our government, you know, took the fight to where it was to keep it from coming here. And our country lead.

Wendell Young  14:13 

None of that happened to here. There was a complete denial or at least the portrayal of a denial at our national level. Our current administration, you know, just refused to do anything. And so, a lot of us were left to come March when the pandemic was declared and governors like – like my own here in Pennsylvania. He definitely did the right thing – Tom Wolfe – were issued stay at home orders. We didn’t have a lot to go on. You think about it back in – they did not issue a wear-a-mask order. And even that it wasn’t an order, it was an advisory until April 3 I think it was – just going from memory here. While this thing was raging in March, and people were contracting and dying. Right? We were seeing huge spikes in sick members in all our, you know, bargaining units repeat, you know, especially in our meat, or nursing homes, and our retail, and we’re being told don’t wear a mask. It was all about hand washing. And then there was about distancing. And sometimes, we’re getting different advisories out of the CDC daily.

Wendell Young  14:28 

So, we were in a scramble in early March to negotiate and through March with all of our employers, and in our local, you know, 35,000 members, 110 different employers that was time consuming. You know, we split the load amongst our staff, and we went out, and we basically took a standard list of protocols that we wanted the employers to agree to. And while it was important to have things in there, like, you know, PPE and handwashing and distancing, and erecting plexiglass barriers, all that stuff is very important. To us, what was most important or equally as important to the physical stuff was the human resource or personnel policy issues. So, if our contracts didn’t already have it, and even if they did, we were negotiating COVID policies with our employers, at least most of them, so that people who needed to stay home could do so without economic insecurity. And so, whether it was the person who had underlying health conditions that should not be at work because of heightened exposure, increased risk of exposure, or lived with someone that did fit that profile, we wanted them to stay home and be able to afford to do so to have benefit and economic security.

Wendell Young  16:38 

And we also wanted to make sure that if someone had symptoms, and think about it, we’re in March and April, right? Someone had symptoms, we didn’t want them to out of a sense of economic insecurity, decide that it was just the cold or just allergy season, we wanted them out of an abundance of caution to stay home get paid. And most of our employers agreed to policies to get us there. And we had some that were difficult. We had some that were deniers, and when we took them on, you know, with administrative agencies and our governor’s office and our attorney general, and brought them into compliance the old-fashioned way. In one case, I think we’re still facing charges from an employer who – who claims we caused an illegal work stoppage because about 85% of all the employees stayed home. And we help them file for unemployment and workers comp because the employer did not provide a safe workplace because they would not agree to implement any protocols at all. They did on paper, but they didn’t actually in practice follow it.

Wendell Young  17:46 

And of course, that became an example we showed other employers the downside of not working with us. And another employer wasn’t as bad as that – that first one I referred to, we actually went to the media on them. And that forced them back into compliance or into compliance in the first place. So, where are we had some difficult employers, we had to go to some tactics and strategies to convince them to do the right thing. But most of the employers did the right thing. Not every employer did the same thing. But the bottom line is we negotiated to make sure that in the workplace the best protocols were implemented to keep people safe that were possible, and that we had the best employee policies, so that workers and their families would not face economic insecurity if they couldn’t work in any way related COVID-19 and many of those still continue on to today.

Wendell Young  18:36 

You know, our – our non-union counterparts throughout Pennsylvania and nearby was very clear. They didn’t have that benefit. And – and it – and it showed. It showed in – in terms in supermarkets, you could see it the most in terms of how bad things were back in March and April and May with absenteeism and out-of-stocks and store conditions. And, you know, we would often hear stories of people who wouldn’t shop in some of those places because those companies just weren’t doing enough to keep not only the workers with the customer safe. We were always being held as an example that’s how it’s being done right in terms of employers we’re dealing with in Pennsylvania. We had a few exceptions, but for the most part, and we were able to solve those quickly. So, I just tried to tell you that to give you a little example. Another big example, a lot of people saw what happened to our slaughterhouse and meat production industry in this country. And they think of the horror stories like out in Colorado where over 300 people in one plant were sick. And I think at one point, before they closed the plant, or something like five – five or six people had died.

Wendell Young  19:42  That didn’t happen in Pennsylvania. I’m not saying we didn’t have people get sick and die. But you know, our meat processing plants where we had the initial spikes, you know, we collaborated with the company not only on protocols – the companies – but on closing those plants down at the first positive tests. And I mean, for example, JBS Foods. I don’t mind naming them. I’m very proud of what happened there. While we did lose one of our own shop stewards to COVID-19 – he died of it. You know, they not only collaborated from Day One on implementing best protocols, but as soon as the first two people tested positive, and it happened at the same time, they agreed to close the plant down. So, we didn’t end up with 300 sick and five dead. We stopped that in its tracks. And I say we, it was us and the employer and our members working together. And then that plant stay closed for two and a half weeks while we worked together on what’s the best way to safely reopen it. And the record since we reopened, it’s been outstanding in terms of very low infection rate. And thank God, no one else has obviously passed away.

Wendell Young  20:45 

And that same story I can repeat with a handful of plants throughout Pennsylvania. I clearly – we were a model of how it should have been done. And a model of what our government should have been doing as a strategy long before we had to learn it on our own – to help us avoid some of the ugly stuff that happened here. Not – not when I say, “Here,” I mean here in the United States. If we had a government that had developed that strategy and worked with us on education and information, and I think a lot of what we all unfortunately read about or saw on the news would have been avoided with the high infection rates and death rates and some of these tight working conditions in the in the food industry, especially in the slaughterhouses.

Traci Shanklin  21:23 

So, you talked a lot about the workplace safety, and then the collaboration with the employers. How do you think this will affect the collective bargaining process going forward?

Wendell Young  21:36 

Oh, it’s already had an effect. I use JBS as an example because I think it’s such a great one. You know, we’ve already nationally, you know, with Marc Perrone, and as our national president, renegotiated JBS contracts all across the country. Ours was just ratified two weeks ago. You know, this whole experience, you know, that company sat down with us and said, you know, we have to change some things. So, while you heard a lot during this pandemic of some companies temporarily paying called “pandemic pay” or “hero pay” or “hazard pay,” and that was the case at JBS. We sat down and changed the contract to bake in some of the things in terms of the economics and the leave provisions and things going forward for the next handful years. And, so every JBS contract in the country, we all move forward, working together as one union with the employer, you know, from some lessons learned early on in this pandemic. And when we have other employers where some of the policies that we’ve implemented, many of them have been extended month-to-month, or as long as there’s a pandemic declared, whether it’s the formal discussion and ratification that I just described in JBS, or the informal, temporary provisions that are being agreed to, this is turning every day, week or month into a collective bargaining process in a sense.

Traci Shanklin  23:02 

That’s great. How can the UFCW help lead the way to change, I guess, to improve the responses that have been set forth with COVID-19?

Wendell Young  23:14 

Well, it’s education because you know, our members, they’re a lot like the community in general. I’ve – anybody that listens to me in this podcast, you know, I want to be clear. You know, we have some – some members out there that think a little differently about all the subjects we’ve talked about. You know, everybody, what’s the best way say this – 100% of the people don’t agree 100% of the time, right? So, you know, if we have a very diverse union, we’re gonna have a lot of diverse ideas about things, and not everybody sees Black Lives Matter the same way. Not everybody sees, you know, the MeToo movement the same way. Not everybody sees LGBTQ rights the same way. So, I think the role unions can play is information and education to try and cut through all the other nonsense that’s out there. And I hate to use the term but fake news and help bring people together.

Wendell Young  24:08 

And, you know, it doesn’t always happen. It doesn’t always happen at once. But you know, I’ve been doing this long enough that, you know, even before all these things that are going on that we just talked about just in this past year, or two or three, you know, I’ve seen it happen. I remember when the Latino workers started to become a larger and larger number at a shocking 2 to 5% in some of our food processing units in central PA 25 years ago, how outraged some of the local people were that quote, those people are even allowed to come work there. And even you know, just in recent years in some places, I’ve heard some of the same kind of stuff but you know, over time, you know, we have the opportunities as a union to help change that in those same units 25 years ago, you know, I insisted that some of those recently, immigrated people to those communities be part of our bargaining committees, whether the members liked it or not. And by doing that, folks got to know each other. And who wouldn’t even talk to each other before.

Wendell Young  25:12 

I have a guy on staff now, Carlos Roman, he’s one of our union reps. He was one of the people that people wanted to throw out of a meeting 20 years ago, but because we, you know, insisted that people like Carlos be on our bargaining committees and be equals as union members in the workplace, and in our representation of them. He eventually went on to become the chief steward in that plant and the union – full-time union rep with our union. You know, if we don’t make those efforts, it’s not going to happen. We have to be part of the change. We can’t just leave it to others and assume that it will happen on its own. And, you know, Carlos earned the respect of those people in that plant over time because we made sure he was seen as equal and gave him an equal shot. And – and we also – we didn’t back down to that vocal group who basically as a mob wanted to stifle them from being able to work there or have a voice there. And we made sure that didn’t happen. It took a long time. But we made that change. And it’s – and there’s other workplaces we’ve had the same kind of evolution.

Traci Shanklin  26:15 

So, I’m a big believer that one of the ways in which we get to impact change is by voting. And we’re entering into a very important election cycle. And when you say be part of the change, I want to say to our listeners, definitely be part of the change. Educate yourself. Remember that this very well, I know it is always said – said, and it’s sort of trite to say this could be the most important election ever. I truly believe that with so much going on in our country right now. I actually did an interview with a woman who said it best. She said, “Really this is an election about our democracy.” And anyway, so I digress. But something that you said made me think of that. And I think it’s super important.

Wendell Young  27:07 

Why I agree with that woman. I know, you have a lot of talking heads out there in the national scene saying the same thing. And it does, you know, sound like a broken record, “It’s the most important election of our lifetime.” But if you think about what’s happened in this administration. You know, I think of the things that the conservatives would yell at that Obama did. And, by comparison, what’s going on here, nobody would tolerate from another president. So, why they’re tolerating it here? The only thing our Country’s had since its – its beginnings that, you know, we were able to use to control leaders is the election, and we now have a leader talking about dismissing an election. That scares me. And I wouldn’t put it past him to try and I – so I think the more people that show up and vote; the more people that engage in the process and demand that their vote, you know, be respected and upheld, the harder it’s going to be for him to get away with it.

Traci Shanklin  28:08 

I agree. So, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Wendell Young  28:12 

I think I talked a lot.

Traci Shanklin  28:14 

It was great.

Wendell Young  28:16 

I really appreciate you inviting me on. And I know I got a little political, and I know there are differences, opinions on the political side. But you know, I represent workers. And for them at the end of the day, it’s about their quality of life; what opportunities they have. And politics affects everything we do from cradle to grave. And that’s why it is so important. And you know, people who say, “Well, you know, we shouldn’t talk about politics or involve politics.” Well, you can’t avoid it. It affects too much of everyone’s lives. And for the people I represent, you know, they compared to probably most of the people listening to this podcast, they deserve a better quality of life, whether they’re here second, third generation, because none of us with – with how young our country is – none of us can claim that we’re really from here. But those who are more recently, you know, come to this country or not, the people I represent, they deserve better quality of life. The standard of living of working people has gone down consistently since the 70’s. And they really started to decline in the 80’s, the value of their retirement plans, the level of coverage of their health care, the value of the wages, the stagnation of their wages, it’s enough already. And I think people have just gotten so used to it that they feel there’s nothing they can do, and the one thing they can do is select people who are going to change that; who are gonna help improve the quality of their life for now and the rest of their life and for their kids. And it’s that simple and, you know, take a look at what people have stood for their whole life and vote for those who give you the best shot to have a better life. You know, people I represent they want to work. And – but they also want to be treated fairly for it. And so everything we’ve talked about, it’s all related to that and comes back to that.

Traci Shanklin  30:13 

Very well said. This has been an amazing conversation, Wendell, thank you so much for your willingness to share your thoughts and insights with the listeners. And I really greatly appreciate your time.

Wendell Young  30:30 

And again, say hi to your dad.

Traci Shanklin  30:33 

Absolutely, I will certainly pass that along. And thank you so much for being here. This has been an enlightening conversation with Wendell Young IV, the current president of the UFCW Local 1776 and the International Foundation president. Combined with the regulatory changes and the economic crisis of 2001 and 2008, many multiemployer plans and their solvency have been called into question. Before COVID-19, 130 plans were projected to insolvency, but now 200 plans are in jeopardy. If you’d like to learn more about the International Foundation, or you’d like to get involved, please visit www.ifebp.com.

Traci Shanklin  31:21 

Thank you 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’d love to hear from you. And if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, head over to www.multiemployerfunds.com and let us know. Thank you for joining us, and we look forward to next time.