DETROIT — The United Auto Workers strike is bringing a blue-collar versus billionaire battle to the Motor City, just as UAW President Shawn Fain wanted.
The outspoken union leader has weaponized striking — historically a last resort for the union — after less than 24 hours into a work stoppage arguably better than any UAW president has in modern times.
It wasn’t by accident.
Fain, a quirky yet emboldened leader, has meticulously brought the UAW back into the national spotlight after decades of near irrelevance. He wants to represent not just union members but also America’s embattled middle class, which UAW helped create.
United Auto Workers union President Shawn Fain joins UAW members who are on a strike, on the picket line at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan, September 15, 2023.
Rebecca Cook | Reuters
To do so, he has leveraged a yearslong national labor movement and a growing disgust for wealthy individuals and corporations among many Americans — starting with his first time addressing the union’s more than 400,000 members during his inauguration speech in March.
“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 who refuse to give our members their fair share,” Fain said at the time. It’s a brand new day for the UAW. “
Fain echoed his first speech Friday morning when he joined UAW supporters and members picketing in front of a Ford Plant in Michigan, one of the three locations the company is striking. Fain said outside the Ford Bronco SUV and Ranger pickup plant that “we have to do what we’ve got to do” in order for us all get our fair share of social justice, economic justice, and equity during this strike. It doesn’t really matter how long it will take. “
Fain is a UAW GM retired worker, and his grandfather who started at Chrysler was a UAW GM employee in 1937. Fain, a UAW member since 1994, keeps a pay stub from his grandfather in his wallet to “remind” him of his roots. Fain’s comments that the union would not endorse President Joe Biden for reelection, who calls himself “the most pro-union president of history,” got national media attention. Fain and Biden met and spoke, but Fain has shown little support for Biden. Fain responded to the comments made by President Biden on Friday saying: “Working People are not afraid.” Who’s the one who is afraid? The corporate media are afraid. The White House has a fearful attitude. The companies are scared. “
While many past union leaders have talked such talk, Fain has thus far delivered on his promises to members without batting an eye — causing General Motors
Ford Motor and Stellantis to go into crisis mode this week as the UAW follows through on that promise to members.“We’ve never seen anything like this; it’s frustrating,” Ford CEO Jim Farley told CNBC’s Phil LeBeau Thursday as he criticized Fain and the union for what he said was a lack of communication and counteroffers. “I’m not sure what Shawn Fain’s doing, but I don’t think he is negotiating with us this contract, which expires. “In a statement Friday, Ford said that the UAW’s partial strike at its Michigan Assembly Plant has forced it to lay off about 600 workers.“This is not a lockout,” Ford said. The strike in the Michigan Assembly Plant’s paint and final assembly departments has forced Ford to lay off 600 workers. The paint department is currently on strike. E-coating takes place in this department. “
GM’s CEO Mary Barra shared Farley’s sentiments on CNBC “Squawk Box” Friday. “
I’m very frustrated and disappointed,” said she. We don’t have to go on strike at this time. Both CEOs did everything possible to show that they believed Fain was not bargaining in good-faith without using these exact words. This could justify a complaint at the National Labor Relations Board. Ford was not included in the complaint. GM and Stellantis have denied those allegations.
Several past union leaders and company bargainers who spoke to CNBC hailed the way Fain has been able to propel the UAW into the national spotlight, including pausing bargaining for a Friday rally and march with Sen. Bernie Sanders, the progressive lawmaker from Vermont. Sanders’s surprise victory in the 2016 Democratic primary election in Michigan cemented his national prominence. He has supported labor movements across the country, railing against the billionaire elite. Both of these measurements show that UAW communication has been outstanding. “
UAW Members have taken Notice — Especially after many of them disdained the union leadership throughout and after an years-long federal corruption probe that sent two former UAW Presidents and more than 12 others to prison. This is going to be history because we’re trying to get the benefits we deserve. “
Dobbins, a UAW Local 600 union representative, balked at current record offers by the automakers that have included roughly 20% pay increases, thousands of dollars in bonuses, retention of the union’s platinum health care and other sweetened benefits.
“That’s not working for us. Dobbins demanded, “Give us what we requested.” “That’s exactly what we want.” “United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain, center, poses with Anthony Dobbins, right, a 27-year autoworker, and others as the union pickets a Ford plant in Wayne, Michigan, Sept. 15, 2023. Michael Wayland/CNBCKey union demands include 40% hourly wage increases, a 32-hour workweek, a return to traditional pensions, the elimination of compensation levels, and the restoration of cost of living adjustments. Other items on the table include enhanced retiree benefits and better vacation and family leave benefits.
Automakers have argued such demands would cripple the companies. Farley said that the automaker’s profits would have been nearly $30 billion if current union demands were implemented. Instead, they would have recorded $14.4 billion in losses over the past four years. Barra, a union member, said that Fain’s strategy of getting workers a bigger piece of the pie carries a lot risk. A former high-ranking bargainer for one of the automakers told CNBC that it’s nearly guaranteed the companies cut union jobs through product allocation, plant closures or other means to offset increased labor costs.
“They’re going to have to pay up. “The question is, how much?” said the long-time bargainer who spoke on condition of anonymity. This will result in fewer jobs. This is how automakers reduce costs. Why not fight?
“This is us doing what we have to do to care for the working class,” Fain stated Friday. Fain said Friday that this is not just about the UAW. It’s about all the working people in this country. You deserve equity no matter what your profession is. “