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How Shawn Fain, an unlikely and outspoken president, led the UAW to strike

A man with glasses raises his right fist. He is facing the lower left corner of the photo. The photo is heavily shadowed.
Matthew Hatcher
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AFP via Getty Images
United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain speaks outside the UAW Local 900 headquarters across the street from the Ford Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich. The union announced the start of a strike at three factories just after midnight on Friday.

The former union electrician was an underdog in recent UAW leadership elections, but with a tough love approach to auto companies in negotiations, he narrowly won. Now he's taking the union on strike.

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain has been in that office less than six months, and already he has launched a series of targeted strikes at factories owned by General Motors, Ford and Stellantis. The current UAW contract with the domestic car companies expired at midnight, and that's when workers at three plants walked off the job.

The strikes aren't a surprise. Fain has taken a far more militant tone with management than his predecessors going back decades. He says it's the only way to ensure that workers get their fair share as car companies continue to enjoy huge profits.

An autoworker outside the Ford Michigan Truck plant shows a pin on his fluorescent yellow and orange vest reading "I don't want to strike but I will" on the first day of contract talks for the UAW with major U.S. automakers on July 19.
Don Gonyea / NPR
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NPR
An autoworker outside the Ford Michigan Truck plant shows a pin on his fluorescent yellow and orange vest reading "I don't want to strike but I will" on the first day of contract talks for the UAW with major U.S. automakers on July 19.

The UAW leader has a long history with the automobile industry. Fain often talks about his family members who began working in car plants in the earliest days of the United Auto Workers union: one of his grandfathers was hired by Chrysler in 1937 — that's the year the UAW was officially recognized. Fain carries around one of his grandfather's old pay stubs in his wallet.

"My grandparents were part of the millions of families who moved to the Midwest to work for auto companies and seek out a better life," Fain recalled. "Like my grandfather's pay stub that I carry with me every day, I'm proud to have inherited my grandmother's Bible and her faith."

That reference to faith is evident in Fain's rhetoric around the UAW, its power and this strike.

He explained this week that he finds a lot to relate to in biblical stories of using faith to stand up to fear — something he is encouraging his membership to do now.

Started at the bottom

To say Shawn Fain is an unlikely UAW president is an extreme understatement.

Recognizing that workers needed a voice, he got involved in the union on the local level in Kokomo, Ind.

"He's an electrician. He served an apprenticeship and he became shop chair in the Chrysler Kokomo foundry. That's among the most demanding jobs in the union in that you're dealing with grievances and issues on the shop floor all the time," Harley Shaiken explained. Shaiken is a professor at UC Berkeley who specializes in labor organizing.

Eventually, Fain left Kokomo for a staff job at UAW headquarters in Detroit — at Solidarity House — helping those union officials who actually negotiated the national contracts.

But Fain was frustrated by the way the union's top leadership dealt with corporate management. Yes, the early 2000s brought hard times for the industry with the financial crisis and bankruptcy for GM and Chrysler, but Fain felt the union was giving up too much, too many concessions. That included the tiered wage system where new hires were paid significantly less. Originally implemented in the economic downturn of 2007, it persists today.

He wasn't alone in his views, but such dissent gained no traction in those days. Many workers were just happy to have a job. At the time, the UAW, after decades of major wins, rolled back its requests of the automakers to try to sustain the industry at a time of great upheaval.

Corruption at the top

Then came a bombshell that would change everything again: a major corruption scheme involving many of those leaders Fain was at odds with.

After a four-year FBI investigation into corruption in the UAW, it found embezzlement of union dues and other offenses that ultimately sent two former UAW presidents to prison. A dozen other union officials were also convicted.

A federal monitor was named to oversee union operations, and as part of a consent decree the UAW was forced to change how it elected its leadership. Instead of delegates and other union officials picking the top brass, now the membership would directly vote for top officers. That left an opening for union reformers.

And in that first-ever direct election by the membership, Shawn Fain declared his candidacy.

One worker, one vote, one president

UAW President Shawn Fain talks with reporters before marching in the Detroit Labor Day Parade on Sept. 4.
Bill Pugliano / Getty Images
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Getty Images
UAW President Shawn Fain talks with reporters before marching in the Detroit Labor Day Parade on Sept. 4.

He ran on a platform to end corruption, to win back what the union had given up in concessions 15 years ago and to end those multi-tier pay rates. He wears T-shirts with "End Tiers" printed on the front to rallies. And he promised then that he was ready to use strikes to achieve those goals.

Fain won the election. But at the start of the campaign, he was a longshot at best. Even union experts did not notice his candidacy.

"Even though this was to be the first direct election of officers of the UAW in the history of the union, he seemed to have little chance of making it," Harley Shaiken, the union expert, recalled.

But Fain worked hard, reaching out to members directly, and found there was an appetite for a progressive message. He believed people wanted to hear from a candidate who would hold corporate feet to the fire and one that would demand that politicians who win union endorsements actually fight for causes important to unions.

He visited local union halls and stood outside plant gates. He held campaign events on Facebook Live where he'd take questions from members who logged in for up to two hours at a time.

He started to gain momentum. And on the first ballot, he made it into a two-candidate runoff. On that second and final ballot, he won by the narrowest of margins, just 477 votes.

Fain was sworn in at a convention in Detroit in April. He made it clear the message of his campaign would be the same under his UAW presidency.

"Now 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," Fain said at that April convention.

If rhetoric like that makes some people uncomfortable, Fain says so be it. His approach, past and present, is to leave no doubt about what he sees as the union's role: to be the voice and the advocate for its members.

He continues to use Facebook Live to directly reach members of the union, including recent sessions where he displayed a trash can full of automaker proposals in contract talks.

That's a message he takes out on the road too: He's done it at plant gates and union halls. And, appropriately, he stood in front of a crowd at a rally in Detroit on Labor Day and promised to stand tough.

"The UAW is back in the fight and we are ready to stand united to win economic and social justice," Fain said. "And I got a question for all of you. Are you ready to rumble?"

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

Don Gonyea
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.