He’s known to quote the Bible and Nation of Islam civil rights leader Malcolm X. He’s a social media fanatic who keeps the pay stubs of his union member grandfather in his wallet. And now, Shawn Fain is representing nearly 150,000 auto workers in one of the biggest labor strikes in decades.
In taking action against all three Detroit carmakers, Fain, the head of the United Auto Workers, has remade the strategy of the union he leads, choosing a bolder, much riskier path than his predecessors after he won office by a narrow margin in a first-ever direct election earlier this year.
The strike started as the clock hit midnight on Friday, and followed Fain’s decision to open negotiations with Ford Motor, General Motors and Stellantis simultaneously and eschew public niceties involving choreographed handshakes that famously kicked off previous negotiating efforts.
The strategy is not without risk. A weeks-long strike would hit workers who live paycheck to paycheck, while the Detroit Three automakers have billions in cash to withstand the walkout.
Fain, 54, has made creative use of social media, appearances on network and cable news programs and alliances with high-profile progressive politicians such as U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, to reframe the UAW’s contract bargaining as a battle to re-set the balance of power between workers and global corporations.
He has rebutted automakers’ concerns about labor costs by pointing out that they have poured billions into share buybacks to benefit investors. “If they’ve got money for Wall Street they sure as hell have money for the workers making the product,” he said. “We fight for the good of the entire working class and the poor.”
In lengthy social media talks to UAW members, Fain alternates quoting Bible verses with the use of charts and graphs to dissect wage and benefit offers from the automakers – details his predecessors kept behind closed doors during bargaining crunch time.
Fain, in his unorthodox approach, ran what amounted to a public auction among the companies to push each one to top the other to avoid a costly walkout. Prior UAW presidents picked just one automaker to set a pattern for the other two.
Over and over, Fain has told UAW members at the Detroit Three that they can reverse 20 years of wage and retiree benefit concessions, stop further plant closures and end a seniority-based, tiered compensation system that pays new hires as much as 44% less than veteran workers.
“He’s basically showing me who he is and where he comes from every time he presents himself. So, when he shows the plan, I can follow it. I understand that it’s a new way of going about things and I think he’s really shaking them up,” said Darwin Segers, 49, a UAW member who works at the Stellantis Mack Plant in Detroit.
Achieving any one of those goals in one bargaining round would be a significant achievement. UAW-Detroit Three contracts have tended toward incremental change, with worker gains offset by provisions that allowed the companies to drive costs down with automation and process efficiency.
Referring to Biblical scripture, Fain asked union members: “Are you willing to have faith and move that mountain? Nobody’s coming to save us.”
Fain, whose grandfather was a UAW member, has escalated his rhetoric – and his stagecraft – since bargaining kicked off in July.
In one of his early Facebook Live videos, he delivered his message wearing a black T-shirt with a quotation from Malcolm X on the back. The Wednesday before contract expiration, he said UAW members must fight for a better contract “by any means necessary” – one of Malcolm X’s most quoted phrases.
Long-term technology threats
The crucial test for Fain’s strategy comes as the current contracts with the Detroit Three expire. In 2019, the union launched a strike against GM when the company refused to agree to a contract by the deadline. That six-week strike cost GM $3.6 billion and stressed the finances of UAW members.
The union has since beefed up its strike fund to $825 million, but the automakers have much more in cash and weeks of inventory they can run down.
“The UAW needs to be careful not to overplay their hand, as the balance sheets of The Detroit Three are flush with cash and they can probably wait things out longer than the workers can,” wrote CFRA Research analyst Garrett Nelson.
Other unions, including Teamsters at delivery giant United Parcel Service and writers and actors in Hollywood, have also been emboldened, and some including UPS have won substantial raises. The actors and writers have been on strike for more than 100 days.
Like the Hollywood unions, the UAW members at the Detroit Three face threats from new technology that a richer contract will not resolve.
Company executives have said the UAW’s demands will make them uncompetitive as the shift to EVs offsets the profits delivered by the combustion trucks UAW members build. Ford CEO Jim Farley went even further in a CNBC interview on the day of contract expiration: “You want us to choose bankruptcy over supporting our workers,” he said.
Fain dismisses those warnings.
“They pretend the sky will fall if we get our fair share of the quarter of a trillion dollars the Big Three have made over the past decade,” Fain said. “It’s the billionaire economy – that’s what they are worried about.”
(Reporting by Joe White and Ben Klayman in Detroit; additional reporting by Eric Cox in Detroit, Bianca Flowers in Chicago and David Shepardson in Washington; editing by Matthew Lewis and Diane Craft)