“Let’s get ready to RUM-ble!” shouted Shawn Fain, incoming United Autoworkers president, as he took the podium last week at the 2023 United Autoworkers Special Convention.
“It’s a new day in the UAW,” Fain said to the assembled delegates in a speech lit with battle terms, as well as multiple references to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement (Fain is white, and he squeaked by his Black competitor, incumbent Ray Curry, with 50.2% of the vote). “We’re here to come together to ready ourselves for the war against our only one and only true enemy, multibillion dollar corporations and employers that refuse to give our members their fair share.”
He spoke of ending “plant closures that destroy our working-class communities” and boosting retirement security, healthcare and pensions for all.
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The speech signaled that the union leadership’s approach has vaulted from previous leaders’ more collaborative style in talks with the Detroit three automakers to a confrontational tone going into four-year contract negotiations with Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Stellantis N.V. in September. It’s an open question whether Fain and the 373,000-member UAW will sustain that swagger five months from now, but with the energy shifting and labor organizing nationwide picking up, automakers are on alert.
“If you look just at the OEMs, they are going to do the same preparation they’ve always done, which is really a very state-of-the-art, complete preparation,” said labor strategist and attorney Robert Chiaravalli, who works with Tier 1 and 2 automotive suppliers on labor negotiations. “What they’re going to be looking at more … is not only the possibility of a ratification vote going down more than once, but there being a strike, and they haven’t seen strikes in many years.”
Going forward, the OEMs need to be prepping for a strike and determining how long they will let a strike go, he added. “Clearly, the UAW with Fain in control of it will make strong threats of a strike. Whether they strike or not—who knows, but you have to take it seriously.” If the fighting stance spreads to suppliers with a unionized workforce, they’re in “much more vulnerable state because they don’t have the same type of labor relations, acumen and staff that the OEMs do.”
An Historic Election
Across the board, union organizing nearly doubled in the United States in 2022 over 2021, with 1,279 union elections in 2022. Even in 2021, however, union support was strong, with 68% of Americans approving of unions—the highest percentage since 1965, a Gallup poll found.
The UAW election marked a new beginning in another way, however. Previous UAW leadership was embroiled in a corruption scandal for embezzling more than $1 million in union funds for extended stays in lavish lodgings, $6,000 steak dinners, cigars and golf outings (and the golf gear to go with it). Two UAW presidents, Gary Jones and Dennis Williams, were convicted and went to prison for their actions. Curry was hand-picked by UAW leadership to run the union in 2021, with the knowledge that thanks to a court-appointed independent monitor’s decision, union elections going forward would be one-vote rank-and-file direct elections rather than delegate elections. One-vote elections are a first in the 88-year-old union’s history.
That one-member, one-vote rule change propelled Fain to victory. “I think Shawn Fain’s win is remarkable,” said Stephen Silvia, a labor relations professor at American University in Washington and author of the book The UAW’s Southern Gamble: Organizing Workers at Foreign-Owned Vehicle Plants. “It’s a rare achievement. If you look at the history of unions in the U.S., it’s very rare for a candidate to challenge the status quo and succeed. And he succeeded. And not only that, it wasn’t just him.” Fain’s entire ticket, the Members United slate, emerged as winners in the UAW elections and took seven seats on the UAW’s 14-member International Executive Board.
“That’s an expression that those who voted among the rank and file were not happy about the corruption scandal, and they have not been happy about recent contracts,” said Silvia.
Internal and External Challenges
But the presidential vote was close, and Fain will have to win a majority of rank-and-file membership in the next election, rather than just the delegates’ support.
“Off the bat, he faces an internal challenge and an external challenge,” said Silvia. “Internal in the sense of the tasks that he has to accomplish. And the internal challenge is uniting the union. On the one hand, all seven alternative candidates won, but on the other hand, in the presidential election, it was fewer than 500 votes separating him from Ray Curry. … It shows there is a divide.”
Wavering about the direction to take after a close race shows in Fain’s decision post-election (but before the federal monitor declared his victory) to abruptly fire much of his administrative staff including his chief of staff, said Silvia.
“Shawn Fain has to consolidate an organization, because when you think about it, he’s been a mid-level UAW official for a couple of decades. He hasn’t run anything. So, this is a challenge.
“When you have a split election, you can either take an open position and say, ‘With malice towards none and charity for all.’ Or you can say, ‘If you’re not with us within the organization, you’re against us.’ I’m not clear where they are on that, and what they’re going to do.”
David Green, newly elected regional director of UAW Region 2B is past president of the UAW Locals 1714 and 1112 at GM’s former Lordstown, Ohio, complex. When the Lordstown plant was "unallocated" in 2019, he uprooted his family to take a job as a die caster at GM's Bedford, Indiana, plant. Green is the only independent member on the UAW board, and his priorities are different than some others on the union. He wants to better educate and empower the individual UAW members in his region about what the union is doing and why it’s important. He wants to get rank-and-file members out to the union retreat in Black Lake, not just top leadership, because “getting people up there is just a transformational experience.”
Green, who was able to get a college education courtesy of GM’s tuition reimbursement program, visited Black Lake for the first and only time in 2003, and it made him an activist. “It really opened up my eyes to recognize what the organization is doing across all sectors, beyond our local workplace,” he said. “Just listening to folks from other sectors who are going through the same struggles. We all have to support each other and work together to make sure we’re doing what we can. That’s extremely important.”
In September negotiations, he’d like to see the membership “get the justice they deserve. The corporations have been making millions, if not billions of dollars right off the backs of the working folks, and our members deserve more. A lot of these [companies] are having a hard time [filling jobs], they’ve gotten so low in wages and benefits that people don’t even want to work there anymore. I think in some cases, [employers] recognize it.”
Where Is There Room for Compromise?
As the UAW tries to unify the troops, automakers should be thinking about how they can increase bargaining leverage, said Chiaravalli. “Not only, ‘Do we have inventory and resources to withstand a strike?,’ but ‘How long am I willing to let it go before the loss of profits build up so great that I cave in?’”
Chiaravalli sees the automakers as most willing to move on the UAW’s demand for higher wages and the abolishment of the two-tier systems where workers hired during and after the 2008 Great Recession receive lower pay raises and fewer benefits. He doesn’t see the union making much headway in negotiations for better pensions, not being “unable to withstand the strike any more than the OEMs can.”
“It’s been a long time now since we’ve seen defined benefit pensions in collective bargaining,” he said. “And to go forward on that is going to be very costly. Even if they were to strike, there would have to be major concessions to pay for it elsewhere.”
Green, on the other hand, thinks the union is gearing for a long strike if needed. “We raised the strike pay to $500 [per week] for a reason: so our members can withstand the negative impacts.”