February 21, 2024

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United Auto Workers leader defiant as contract talks near possible strike

9 min read

Shawn Fain won the presidency of the United Auto Workers by convincing members that the union had been too complacent and cozy with industry for too long. So in contract talks this summer, Fain isn’t going for cozy at all.

He has railed against corporate greed and refused to shake hands with automotive CEOs. He has demanded a 40 percent wage increase. During a recent Facebook Live update to his members, he disgustedly dumped one automaker’s proposals in a wastepaper basket.

“That’s where it belongs, the trash. Because that’s what it is,” Fain, 54, declared before repeating a veiled threat to strike.

Soon, those threats could become more overt. Union members will vote next week on whether to authorize their leadership to call a work stoppage when their contract expires Sept. 14. Such votes typically pass, but this time, observers think a strike is quite possible — a step that would destabilize an industry that makes up 3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

Fain’s stance — ambitious, belligerent and very publicly ticked off — is setting a tense tone for contract negotiations hurtling toward a deadline, with big implications for the economy, the green-energy transition and the future of middle-class manufacturing wages.

United Auto Workers will vote next week on whether to strike

Elected just months ago to lead the union and its 150,000 U.S. autoworkers into contract talks for the first time since 2019, Fain says disgust is only rational after years of factory closures, benefit cuts and wages lagging inflation.

“Anyone that truly knows me will tell you I’m actually a pretty mild person. I’m very quiet, actually, just sitting and having a conversation,” he said in an interview. “But I’m fed up … some of this stuff has happened in the best of times, and there’s no excuse for it.”

General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, the parent company of Chrysler and Jeep, have pledged to negotiate a fair deal but cautioned that they are facing heavy costs and competition from foreign and non-unionized automakers as the electric-vehicle transition heats up. Fain counters that they’ve wasted billions on fat executive pay and share buybacks.

The tension comes at a heated moment for the labor movement. Strikes have sprouted up across the country this summer, from hotel workers in Southern California to beer producers in Wisconsin to lawyers in New York City. In Hollywood, 170,000 actors and screenwriters have been striking for over a month to demand higher wages and guardrails around the use of artificial intelligence, paralyzing the industry. Already, this year is one of the busiest for strikes since 2000.

Economic forces are helping fuel the movement. The labor market has been abnormally tight since the pandemic, forcing employers to compete for workers who have more leverage than they have had in decades to demand better pay and working conditions. The urge to strike is also fueled by a long stretch of wages not keeping up with inflation. At the same time, public support for unions has been steadily rising since the Great Recession, reaching 71 percent in 2022, according to a Gallup survey, the highest approval rating since 1965.

The biggest strike threat of the summer so far appeared to be averted in late July when UPS and its union, the Teamsters, reached a tentative agreement that some labor experts describe as the best for workers in UPS history, including nearly 50 percent raises over the next five years for part-time employees.

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Those wins have inspired the UAW — and increased pressure on Fain to deliver. In addition to a 40 percent raise spread out over the next four years, UAW demands include reinstating regular cost-of-living adjustments to wages, eliminating a two-tiered employment model that offers lower pay to many newer workers, and restoring pensions and retiree health-care benefits to all. (UAW wages at the Big 3 currently range from about $18 to $32 an hour.) Some of the demands would reverse concessions the union made around the Great Recession, a near-fatal moment for the U.S. auto industry, which needed intervention by the federal government to stay in business.

Beyond the immediate negotiations, Fain is also pushing for jobs in EV and battery factories to pay as well as those in the gasoline era — a campaign that could complicate the White House’s green-energy push.

As he heaps scorn on the automakers, Fain is also directing unusual ire at President Biden, who prides himself on his support for the labor movement, dubbing himself the “most pro-union president.” In May, Fain criticized the administration for using billions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize battery and EV factories without requiring strong pay. In a break with other unions, the UAW has yet to endorse Biden’s reelection, at Fain’s urging.

“Our endorsements are going to be earned. They’re not going to be freely given, as they have been in the past,” Fain told The Washington Post.

Keen to avoid a strike that could destabilize the economy and the transition to electric vehicles, Biden has rushed to support the contract talks, without explicitly siding with the union. This week, he urged both parties to reach a deal. He has appointed longtime Democratic adviser Gene Sperling as the White House’s liaison to the negotiations, and last month invited Fain to a one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office, where Fain said they discussed the union’s demand that EV and battery factories pay well. The UAW boss was scheduled to meet with senior White House staff, but when Biden heard the plan, “the president said he wanted to meet with Fain himself,” Sperling said in an interview.

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Fain got his start as a UAW member in 1994 as an electrician for Chrysler in his hometown of Kokomo, Ind., and steadily moved up the union’s ranks. His father was a police chief, and his grandparents moved north from Kentucky and Tennessee for unionized jobs at GM and Chrysler, a step that lifted them out of poverty. The UAW chief proudly carries his grandfather’s pay stub in his wallet.

“Big Three jobs in those days were the gold standard,” Fain said. “Obviously things changed in the ’80s and ’90s, and we’ve been on this downward spiral where greed is good. … This is our generation’s defining moment to turn the tides and bring the working class back.”

Automakers have issued only guarded public statements on the talks, but they appear frustrated by Fain’s demands. They argue that the wages and benefits they offer UAW members are among the best in the manufacturing sector, including annual profit-sharing bonuses and health-care plans with lower out-of-pocket costs than most Americans pay. Ford says its UAW employees average $29.58 per hour in wages alone, and $64 per hour when benefits and bonuses are added.

During the Chrysler bankruptcy proceedings after the Great Recession, Fain was a UAW negotiator — and he said the experience left him scarred. The union’s leaders kept their wage demands from most rank-and-file members, he said, and Fain felt they gave too much away in the end, letting automakers “do everything they’d wanted to do for 20 years” under the guise of saving the industry from bankruptcy.

Strikes spiked in July, as workers seek higher wages to keep up with inflation

Fain came to the election this year as a dissident candidate. After a federal corruption probe led to the conviction of a dozen union leaders — two of them past presidents — for embezzlement and other charges, the UAW held its first-ever direct ballot, with each member able to cast a vote. Fain, running as an outsider, beat the establishment-favored incumbent who took over after the corruption probe, Ray Curry, by a few hundred votes out of some 140,000 ballots cast.

That razor-thin margin is forcing him to consolidate support from different UAW factions, which is one reason Fain has radically boosted union transparency, according to Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Where UAW leaders used to negotiate new contracts with the Big Three behind closed doors, sharing little information with members or the public, Fain is giving regular updates on Facebook Live, posting videos on YouTube and getting out for frequent meetings with the membership.

In a Facebok Live update this week, he blasted a Stellantis executive for vacationing at a “multimillion dollar mansion” in Acapulco instead of attending bargaining meetings. In an Aug. 10 live stream with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Fain urged the public to sign a petition expressing support and to call a UAW-managed voice mail to leave messages for auto-industry CEOs.

“I would say to everyone in the country, their fight is our fight,” said Sanders, who chairs the Senate labor committee.

Breaking long-standing tradition, Fain declined to participate in the usual handshake photo op that UAW negotiators hold with automotive executives at the start of negotiations. Instead, he went to various factory gates in Michigan to shake hands with union members.

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Aaron Penrod, a longtime autoworker at an Illinois plant that Stellantis is closing, said Fain is representing what workers need and want.

“I am not sure I agree with the theatrics of not shaking hands or throwing the proposal in the trash on camera. But maybe that is what needs to be done to get back the pay and benefits from a company that made 12 billion,” Penrod said, referring to Stellantis’ net profit in the first half of 2023. He said he voted for Fain and continues to believe in his leadership.

Josh Ayers, a UAW member at a battery factory near Lordstown, Ohio, said he met Fain when the UAW chief visited his region this spring.

“I think he speaks his mind, he’s not worried about maybe being politically polished. I mean, hell, you heard him tell Joe Biden, ‘We’re not supporting you till you help us out.’ I don’t know of another UAW leader saying that before,” Ayers said, adding that he appreciated the image of Fain trashing the automaker’s offer. “Good for him — it’s about time someone shows some attitude, some grit.”

In the lead-up to the strike deadline, Fain says that the union will hold rallies and “practice pickets,” dress rehearsals for strikes that give management a taste of what could come if workers do not get their demands met.

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In addition to pushing for better compensation, Fain often talks about reclaiming workers’ time. He advocates for workers to be paid for 40-hour weeks while working only 32, an idea he embraced after reading back issues of Solidarity magazine about the UAW’s demands in the 1930s and ’40s — the union’s most militant era, when it was common for hundreds of thousands of autoworkers each year to shut down production by occupying factories.

The UAW chief likes to call hypocrisy on his critics who say his demands are too far to the left.

“The talking heads have zeroed in on the 32-hour workweek [demand], and they’re trying to call me a communist,” said Fain, citing a recent poll that found that most financial service workers would quit their jobs if they had to work in the office full-time. “It’s like we’re asking for obscene things, but it’s got to go both ways.”

In his public remarks Fain frequently refers to one of his heroes, Walter Reuther, the UAW’s legendary president from 1946 to 197o.

“You look at the determination of those leaders back in the day, they took beatings. Reuther was shot. His brother lost an eye and was shot. I mean, we had regional directors back in those days that were beaten within a near inch of their life,” he said. “And these people kept coming back because they were focused on the cause and the cause was just.”

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