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Newly elected United Auto Workers leader strikes militant tone ahead of contract talks

New United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain addresses delegates at the union's 2023 Special Bargaining Convention on March 27 in Detroit.
Carlos Osorio
New United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain addresses delegates at the union's 2023 Special Bargaining Convention on March 27 in Detroit.

For almost a century — going back to legendary sit-down strikes of the 1930s — the United Auto Workers union has been one of the nation's most important labor voices.

The union has been a force in collective bargaining and in U.S. politics, helping to create the American middle class by winning good wages and worker protections that served as a model for other industries.

But more recently, the UAW's reputation has taken a hit, with declining membership due to plant closings, global competition and the availability of low-wage workers outside the United States. UAW members have endured layoffs and contract concessions, along with diminished clout across the board.

To make matters worse, the past decade saw a corruption scandal that resulted in prison terms for two former UAW presidents who were convicted of diverting union funds for their personal use.

Now the union has held a new election — supervised by a court-appointed monitor — and for the first time in its history, the rank-and-file membership got to directly vote for who they wanted to lead the UAW.

The winner — by a very narrow margin — was reform candidate Shawn Fain, who came up through a plant in Kokomo, Ind.

Days later he presided over the UAW bargaining convention in Detroit to determine strategy for contract negotiations with General Motors, Ford and Stellantis this fall.

In his first speech as president, Fain stood before the convention delegates and stated emphatically, "It's a new day in the UAW!" He then promised a much more militant approach at the bargaining table, while also urging delegates to unify after the hard-fought union election, which Fain won only after a runoff.

"We're here to come together to ready ourselves for the war against our one and only true enemy: multibillion-dollar corporations and employers that refuse to give our members their fair share," he said.

The combative tone was embraced by second-generation autoworker Jamante Washington, 58, who works at a Detroit plant that builds the hybrid Jeep Grand Cherokee. Washington was hired 12 years ago, after the UAW had negotiated contracts with two-tiered wages and benefits. Under such agreements, new hires would earn a lower wage than existing workers. Newcomers didn't get the traditional UAW pension, long a staple of autoworker benefits packages. The companies won those concessions in the wake of the 2007-'08 financial crisis.

Washington says that was a lot of years and a lot of hefty corporate profits ago.

"It was negotiated as a way to save the companies and our livelihood," he said, but it became something the companies saw as a way of life. "And every time we go to ask for it back, they say, 'Oh, we can't afford this. We can't afford that.' "

Washington has heard enough such talk. He says winning back those long-ago concessions is something he would be willing to go on strike over. Whether it comes to that in this fall's contract talks remains to be seen.

Seeking to again be a political force

Fain also makes clear that the union — whose members now also include workers in higher education, health care and casinos — needs to again be a force in electoral politics, in support of candidates and officeholders who advance a pro-labor agenda. It's a role the UAW was once well known for but which has lately been taken over by more activist unions representing teachers, government workers and service industry employees.

At a Detroit news conference, Fain said the UAW can provide grassroots campaign volunteers and make campaign contributions. But he also stressed that once in office, those candidates need to be held accountable.

"We can't rely on lip service," Fain said flatly. "I'll just be real with you. We've supported candidates in the past, and people have good intentions, but at the end of the day, on some of our bread and butter issues, it seems like sometimes we don't get that support from where we think it's going to come from." He says that has to change.

Labor has a friend in the governor's office in Michigan, where Democrat Gretchen Whitmer was easily reelected last fall. On top of that, the Michigan Legislature flipped in November from decades of GOP rule to a Democratic majority. Whitmer and her party used their newly established control to quickly overturn the state's so-called right-to-work legislation put in place in Michigan a decade ago as a curb on union clout.

More than half the states have such laws on the books, but Michigan is the first state to repeal right-to-work.

That action alone made Whitmer a hero to the UAW delegates at the bargaining convention, where she was greeted with a standing ovation.

"It's taken a lot of organizing, a lot of advocacy, a lot of voter registration and solidarity to get to where we are today," Whitmer told her union audience. "But we cannot for one second take our foot off the accelerator. We cannot assume it is over, and things are just going to be sunny and bright for anyone who is working hard in this state. We've got to continue to fight for these rights."

Whitmer's presence at the event was also a reminder of the UAW's traditional importance in this state.

Fain called Whitmer "our friend, our ally and our sister." It's an example of how Democrats and labor can work together on shared goals.

But it's not always so easy. UAW leadership works the political terrain also knowing that a lot of its members voted for Republican Donald Trump, who made significant strides cutting into the Democrats' edge with union voters.

Asked about confronting that part of the political equation, Fain told NPR, "I'm not going to get into commenting on what I think about certain candidates or certain people in power. I'll just say that, yes, we're going to be a lot more active and a lot more direct with our elected leaders about what we expect."

Meantime, other newly elected UAW officials who are close Fain allies say it's important that the union have more one-on-one conversations about politics with members, on the shop floor, in the union hall and elsewhere.

None of this will be easy, according to John Russo, a labor expert at Georgetown University who is himself a former autoworker. He says to get the membership fired up about a particular candidate requires trust in their leadership. The past corruption scandals, still a fresh memory for many, make that harder, even with a new leadership team in place. There are other huge challenges as well, including changes in manufacturing as the industry converts to electric vehicles. Russo says that only adds to the pressure on UAW leadership.

"I think that they're facing an array of serious economic and political issues that sort of undermine what they're trying to do as they're trying to reorganize and play an important role politically, but they're swimming upstream, and that's going to continue for the near-term," he said.

Russo says one thing feeds the next. Good or bad. A better-than-expected contract makes finding unity on political issues easier. But not meeting members' expectations has the opposite effect. Such is the road ahead for the new UAW leadership.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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