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 new day in the UAW.”
Fain’s comments Friday morning as he joined UAW members and supporters picketing outside a Ford plant in Michigan — one of three facilities the company is currently striking — echoed everything he said during that first speech.
“We got to do what we got to do to get our share of economic and social justice in this strike,” Fain said outside the Ford Bronco SUV and Ranger pickup plant. “We’re going to be out here until we get our share of economic justice. And it doesn’t matter how long it takes.”
Fain’s upbringing plays into his strong unionism and religious beliefs, which he has growingly talked about with members as he emphasizes “faith” in the UAW’s cause. Two of his grandparents were UAW GM retirees, and one grandfather started at Chrysler in 1937, the year the workers joined the union. Fain, who joined the UAW in 1994, even keeps one of his grandfather’s pay stubs in his wallet as “a reminder” of where he came from.
National media and others really started paying attention to Fain when he said the union would withhold a reelection endorsement of President Joe Biden, who has called himself the “most pro-union president in history.” Fain and Biden have spoken and met, but the union leader has not shown much support for the president. In response to comments by the president Friday, Fain said: “Working people are not afraid. You know who’s afraid? The corporate media is afraid. The White House is afraid. The companies are afraid.”
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 don’t know what Shawn Fain is doing, but he’s not negotiating this contract with us, as it 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. “This layoff is a consequence of the strike at Michigan Assembly Plant’s final assembly and paint departments, because the components built by these 600 employees use materials that must be e-coated for protection. E-coating is completed in the paint department, which is on strike.”
GM CEO Mary Barra echoed Farley’s feelings Friday morning on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”
“I’m extremely frustrated and disappointed,” she said. “We don’t need to be on strike right now.”
Both CEOs said everything they could to indicate they believe Fain may not be bargaining in good faith without using those exact words, which could justify a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.
The UAW in late August filed unfair labor practice charges against GM and Stellantis with the NLRB, alleging they did not bargain with the union in good faith or a timely manner. It did not file a complaint against Ford. 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, whose surprise 2016 Democratic presidential primary win in Michigan helped cement his national prominence, has lent support to numerous labor movements around the country as he rails against the billionaire class.
“I think they’re just doing an outstanding job,” said respected former UAW President Bob King, who cited growing support for the union among the public and the union’s own members. “Both those measurements say that UAW communications has been outstanding.”
UAW members have taken notice — especially after many of them disdained union leadership during and after a yearslong federal corruption investigation that landed two past UAW presidents and more than a dozen others in prison.
“For all the years that I’ve worked here, it’s never been this strong,” said Anthony Dobbins, a 27-year autoworker, early Friday morning while picketing the Ford plant in Michigan. “This is going to make history right here because we are trying to get what 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. Give us what we asked for,” Dobbins said. “That’s what we want. We have to work seven days, overtime, just to make ends meet.”
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 / CNBC
Key demands from the union have included 40% hourly pay increases; a reduced, 32-hour, workweek; a shift back to traditional pensions; the elimination of compensation tiers; and a 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 even said the company would have “gone bankrupt by now” under the union’s current proposals and members would not have benefited from $75,000 in average profit-sharing over the last decade.
Ford sources said the automaker would have lost $14.4 billion over the last four years if the current demands had been in effect, instead of recording nearly $30 billion in profits.
Such profits are exactly what Fain has said UAW members deserve to share in. But his strategy to get workers a larger piece of the pie carries great risks.
“This is not going to be positive from an industry perspective or for GM,” Barra said Friday.
Many outside the union believe if Fain pushes too hard, it could lead to long-term job losses for the union. 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 longtime bargainer, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. “This ends up with fewer jobs. That’s how the automakers cut costs.”
Fain and other union leaders have argued that meeting the companies in the middle has led to dozens of plant closures, fewer union members and a growing divide between blue-collar workers and the wealthy.
So why not fight?
“This is about us doing what we got to do to take care of the working class,” Fain said Friday. “This isn’t just about the UAW. This is about working people everywhere in this country. No matter what you do for a living, you deserve your fair share of equity.”