Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The Moment It All Changed for UAW President Shawn Fain


Shawn Fain is leading the Labor Movement into the Promised Land.  Kagiso, Max

Published on Portside (

The Moment It All Changed for UAW President Shawn Fain

Steven Greenhouse

September 22, 2023


          In 2007, Shawn Fain was a little-known union official at a Chrysler plant in Kokomo, Indiana, having gone to work there a dozen years before as an electrician. What happened next set Fain on the path to where he is today: president of the UAW and the key figure in a historic strike with no end in sight.

          That year, Chrysler (now part of Stellantis) was sliding toward bankruptcy and insisted that to avoid going under, it needed deep concessions from the UAW, including sharply reduced starting pay and a two-tier wage structure in which pay and benefits for future workers would remain permanently below those of workers hired before 2007. The UAW’s leaders decided, unenthusiastically, to agree to those concessions, with Ford and G.M. demanding similar provisions.

          But Fain wasn’t ready to go along. As a committeeperson at Local 1166, he led his local union to vote against ratifying the contract. It was a rare act of defiance from rank-and-file workers amid the high-profile negotiations, and Fain wasn’t at all reluctant about making his defiance public. He loudly denounced the givebacks at a council meeting, saying, “Two-tier wages have no place in this union.”  And in a letter to UAW leadership that reached the media, he said that in approving those concessions, “you might as well get a gun and shoot yourself in the head.”  It was a remarkable public break with his union’s leadership and an important inflection point in Fain’s career.

          With that defiant step, Fain declared his independence from the political group — known as the Administration Caucus — that had run the UAW for six decades. And the move also set him up for a higher position — for years in staff jobs at UAW headquarters in Detroit, then later to be catapulted into the union’s presidency.

          Throughout, Fain was known for his unremitting opposition to concessions, a stance that has directly led to today’s walkout in which the UAW, for the first time ever, has struck all three Detroit automakers at once. The strike has sent shock waves throughout the auto industry, inspired workers across the U.S. and sent President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump rushing to demonstrate who can show more support for the workers.

          Fain, 54, had a bumpy ascent within the 400,000-member UAW. Sometimes union leaders “moved him up in the hope of shutting him up,” said one friend of Fain’s, Scott Houldieson, a Ford assembly plant worker in Chicago and long-time UAW dissident. Other times UAW leaders grew irate with Fain and demoted him. Fain’s official union biography says, “Many times… he was ostracized for speaking up.” The UAW didn’t make him available for an interview.

          Being a prominent dissident put Fain in a good position to run for high union office after an embarrassing crisis hit the UAW in recent years. Prosecutors unearthed a huge corruption scandal in which a dozen UAW leaders, including two former presidents, were ultimately convicted of embezzling more than $5 million in funds for luxury items and travel, from hotels and golf trips to cigars and liquor.

          Fain raised his hand to run for UAW president last year only after the union’s members voted to hold direct elections for top UAW leaders for the first time in the union’s history. That made it possible for a dissident like Fain to have a chance to win, because the Administration Caucus would no longer have total control over who would be chosen president.

          “After 75 years of iron-fisted rule by the Administration Caucus, people were reluctant to step out and challenge the ruling group,” said Houldieson. “Shawn had the courage to do that. Not many others did.”

          There’s somewhat of a paradox to Fain. On one hand, Fain, a blunt-talking and compelling speaker, comes across as a traditionalist, talking of his God and faith and three grandparents who worked in auto plants. He carries around an old, well-worn pay stub from one grandfather who went to work for Chrysler in 1937, the year of the famous sit-down strike that unionized G.M. At the same time, Fain comes across as a militant, channeling Bernie Sanders as he bashes “the billionaire class.” He sometimes quotes Malcolm X and says “we have to be willing to stand up and get our demands by any means necessary.”

          Fain ran for UAW president as an insurgent, and one of his main talking points was “no concessions.” Throughout his campaign, he belittled previous UAW presidents for not being tough enough towards the automakers.

          After eking out a narrow victory in March, Fain promised that in this summer’s contract talks with GM, Ford and Stellantis, he would demand that they roll back some of the detested concessions dating to 2007, especially the two-tier pay structure.

          Fain has repeatedly argued that at a time when Detroit’s automakers have racked up record profits, they should reward their workers, particularly because auto workers’ pay has fallen so far behind inflation (by 19 percent since 2008, according to one think tank).

In making these arguments, Fain, like the legendary UAW leader Walter Reuther who led the union from 1946 to 1970, has framed this fight as one to help not just auto workers, but America’s entire working class.

          We’re all fed up with living in a world that values profits over people,” Fain said earlier this month. “We’re all fed up with seeing the rich get richer while the rest of us just continue to scrape by. We’re all fed up with corporate greed and together, we’re going to fight like hell to change it.”

          Also much like Reuther, Fain has roiled the White House at times. He castigated Biden for not doing enough to ensure that the new electric vehicle battery plants being built with federal subsidies will pay high wages. Some Democrats have voiced fears that Fain’s harsh words for Biden will push some UAW members into backing Trump or staying home in November 2024.

          “He’s taking a very militant line and acting very different from past union presidents,” said Harry Katz, a professor and former dean of the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “He tore up a Chrysler contract offer and threw it in the trash. He benefits from acting unpredictably. He keeps the companies off balance.”

United Auto Workers members, including President Shawn Fain, center, march past General Motors headquarters in Detroit on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. | Paul Sancya/AP Photo

          The very existence of billionaires shows us that we have an economy that is working for the benefit of the few, and not the many,” Fain said. “It feels like we’ve gone so far backwards that we have to fight just to have the 40-hour workweek back. Why is that? So another ###hole can make enough money to shoot himself to the moon?”

          Marick Masters, a business professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, said Fain deserves credit for changing the narrative about workers and their role in the economy. “Going back decades, we’ve approached negotiations as, ‘What can labor give to help us be competitive?’” Masters said. “But with Fain, it’s more that labor is entitled to its fair share and it’s time to address all the inequality.”

          The UAW strike has been getting huge publicity and public support — one poll found that 54 percent of Americans support the walkout, while 18 percent oppose it.

          That’s even as Fain has pushed a huge and ambitious list of demands: raises of more than 40 percent, a cost-of-living adjustment, a 32-hour workweek, ending the two-tier pay structure, restoring reduced pension and health benefits, creating a jobs bank for laid-off workers, and converting temporary workers to full employees with full benefits after 90 days on the job.

          “Shawn has been very tough to date. That has caught the companies off guard,” said Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor and former auto worker who attended a three-day bargaining strategy session that Fain led.

          While the automakers have blanched at Fain’s many proposals, saying they’re exorbitantly expensive, some Fain supporters say he was merely putting forward the demands that rank-and-file workers wanted.

          Frustrated with Fain’s long list of demands, Ford CEO Jim Farley said, “You want us to choose bankruptcy over supporting our workers.”

Masters said that by making so many ambitious demands, “Fain may have painted himself in a corner that he can’t get out of without losing some face.” In other words, even if Fain wins, say, large wage increases, a cost-of-living adjustment and an end to two tiers, some union members might nonetheless be angry that he didn’t also win on a 32-hour-workweek, improved pension benefits, a jobs bank and improvements for temporary workers.

          As for politics, it’s also possible Fain has fumbled things. He has railed against Biden and said that his traditionally Democratic union was withholding any endorsement from the president, at least for now — moves that Fain hopes will pressure Biden to do more to ensure high wages at new, federally subsidized battery plants. But some longtime labor watchers fear that Fain’s harsh words and non-endorsement will push some UAW members into Trump’s camp.

          “It was a big mistake for Fain to criticize Biden so rudely and hold off on endorsing,” Katz said. “Biden has been the most pro-union president of our lifetime. I think Fain, by using that language, fuels support for our fascist former president, and I’m scared about that.”

Trump is trying to seize on the opportunity, saying he will go to Detroit next week to speak to union members. In response, Fain laid into Trump: “Every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers.”

          Ultimately for Fain and his union, it all depends on how the strike concludes.

          “He can have a real victory here,” Shaiken said. “But there has to be an end game, and nobody is clear on his end game.”

Read more: Record Auto Profits Should be Used to Address Inequality and the Climate Crisis by UAW President Shawn Fain and Congressman Ro Khanna

          Steven Greenhouse, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is a former New York Times labor reporter and author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.

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