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Saturday, March 2, 2024
March 2, 2024

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Q&A: UAW’s Fain on targeting non-union auto plants, foreign transplants, EV startups after ‘record contracts’ with Detroit 3


DETROIT — United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain has become one of the nation’s highest-profile labor leaders since becoming the Detroit-based union’s top official in March. Fain, 55, took office after narrowly defeating incumbent Ray Curry in a runoff election. Fain, who was an international administrative representative in the Stellantis department, vowed to shake up the union that had been damaged by a long-running corruption scandal and “transform the UAW into a member-led, fighting union once again.”

Fain has proven true to his word, demanding “record contracts” from the Detroit Three automakers and leading an unprecedented “stand up” targeted plant strike against the companies that ended after more than 40 days with tentative agreements that achieved hefty pay raises, the restoration of cost-of-living increases and a faster timeline for new hires to reach top wages. In the wake of those contracts, he’s vowed to organize foreign transplants and electric vehicle startups, launching a campaign this past week.

The Detroit News spoke with Fain on Friday at the UAW’s Solidarity House headquarters in Detroit.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: The UAW this week made a big announcement regarding its organizing efforts, an unprecedented effort to target all non-unionized auto plants in the country. I wanted to ask what makes you think that the union will be successful at organizing those sites now? And is the UAW approaching it differently than it has in the past? How confident are you that that will happen and how do you mark that success? Is it the fact that they will have to adapt sort of what the Detroit automakers agreed to?

Answer: You know, I’m very confident. I think the big difference is that I think working-class people in this country are fed up, so naturally it’s a lot different than it has been in the past in that regard. We literally have thousands of non-union workers signing cards without really any effort at all from us right now. Workers have been reaching out by the thousands throughout this contract. So I think it’s a lot different climate, a different environment than it has been in my lifetime. I think if you compare this time going back to the post-Depression era days in the ‘30s and ‘40s, when humans really grew, I think it’s kind of similar. We went through a Great Recession, and then we followed up with a COVID pandemic, and I think it really made people reflect on what’s important in life.

I mean, we talk about the Big Three making a quarter-trillion dollars in profits in the last decade. You know, the Japanese and Korean Six and the German Three made double that amount. So their workers make less. So I think it really connects the dots for workers. So I, you know, I believe that workers are fed up and they want their share. They’re tired of living paycheck to paycheck while you know, the corporate class, no-brainer class, walk away with everything. So with these contracts we just bargained, obviously it’s led these companies to try to do some things for their workers because they see the reality of what’s coming and they’re seeing that their workers want: they want their lives back, and unions are the path to that. So I feel very good about the chances of making that happen.

Q: Are you approaching this in a different way beyond, of course, making this a very comprehensive effort?

A: I don’t want to get really in depth on our strategy, but really the strategy is very similar to, you know, the Big Three bargaining, how it went. You know, the workers are going to do this. I mean, the workers are the reason we won those, the greatest contracts in our history. The worker standing up. You know, I’m not going to win this. I didn’t win that contract. The workers did. I mean, I can bargain all day long. But what secured those contracts was the power of the worker standing up and walking out and the threat of more workers going out on strike.

The companies knew that the workers were fed up and they would do what they had to do. And that’s a lot of power. And I think that translates the same into organizing. The companies know that these workers are getting fed up and have been fed up with how they’ve been treated. Those companies have had massive profits. You look at the Japanese and Korean Six, they made roughly $480 billion in the last decade, the German Three made $460 billion. That’s a trillion dollars in profits between those top nine or 10 companies over a decade. The workers haven’t. And if you look at what, you know, the companies could have given these increases a year ago. They didn’t; they waited while we negotiated these contracts, then they decided to do this. It wasn’t out of the kindness of their hearts. But you know, at the end of the day, the workers will win that. And you know, the other similarity, I think, between the Big Three bargaining and approaching this round of organizing is, you know, we didn’t pick a target company and bargain with it. We bargained with all three. And I think it’s the same with organizing these companies. We’re going to organize them all. We’re doing to launch campaigns with all of them. It’ll be up to the workers to decide who goes first and how they progress with signing cards and things like that, but I feel really confident about where we’re headed. And I know we have a very good strategy for it.

Q: How would you measure the success of these efforts? Is there a timeline for when you expect to see some of these plants getting to that 30% (of cards signed by members)?

A: We have timetables and things that we’re looking at and I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on all that because I really think we just let that play out how it is. We have boots on the ground. We have teams that are working towards these goals and working with organizing committees and whatnot. And so, we’ve had thousands of people sign cards without even really being out there doing anything. So it’s obvious that workers are fed up and they want change and they want to have a say in their lives.

Q: So in terms of workers reaching out to you, one of the topics that could be playing into the background of this too is the union coming out of this years-long corruption scandal. How confident are you that that is in the past for the UAW? And do you feel like that could be a challenging topic as you go on these organizing efforts?

A: I’m sure that the companies will try to throw everything they can to put fear in workers, but those days are behind us. Look, we’re no longer a company union. Those days are gone. We just proved that with this round of bargaining. If anyone questions that, all they got to do is look at what happened and look at the example. You know, we didn’t do handshakes (with company leaders) before bargaining. We shook the members’ hands and we took on all three companies at once. So we didn’t do things as we’ve traditionally done. You know, the membership comes first in this union, and that’s how it should be and that’s how it always should be and it will from this day forward. So the days of what happened before, those people were prosecuted and that took care of itself.

So we’re moving forward as a union and the workers see the difference. These workers reaching out wanting to make a difference in their work life, it’s a huge testament to that. The union is the vehicle for people to get justice in their workplace. You know, that’s the thing people have to focus on. These companies that gave raises — Toyota and Hyundai and Honda and Subaru, Nissan — as I said, they didn’t do it out of the kindness of their heart. They did it because they’re worried their workers may come for their fair share, and that’s what this is all about. I mean, without a union, all those increases that they gave to these workers, they can take away tomorrow. The workers have no recourse except when they have a union contract. When you have a union, they just can’t do that. So that is the key point I think that workers need to understand. Even thought they just received these increases, Toyota can walk in tomorrow, Nissan and these companies, and take it away. And your recourse at that point is to quit or accept it or challenge it and risk being fired because you’re an employee at will. With a union contract, you won’t have to worry about those things.

Q: If you are successful in organizing these sites with Honda, Toyota, Tesla, what is the expectation that they will follow the economics we’ve seen at the Detroit Three?

A: Our expectation is yes. As I said, I want to cover this, but the 10 major non-(American) automotive companies generated over the last decade $12 trillion dollars in revenue, a trillion dollars in profits. As I said, the Japanese/Korean $480 billion, the German Three $460 billion. The CEO at Toyota pay increased 125% over the last two years. I mean, we talked about the Big Three making $250 billion, half of what these people make. The CEOs gave themselves a 40% increase over four years at the Big Three. The Toyota CEO has received 125% in two years, so it is grossly, grossly in the wrong way when it comes to these companies, so they can afford to pay their workers a hell of a lot more than what they do and to give them the benefits they deserve, and their fair share. But I do believe without having a union it’s going to be hard for workers to get those things.

Q: You mentioned the gains you won in these new contracts with the Detroit Three. At this point, those competitors aren’t unionized. I think one of the questions that sort of came out of these discussions, especially hearing about the automakers seeking to be competitive in the marketplace is: Do you care about the success of the Detroit Three?

A: What good does it do to see the company fail? I mean, at that point, I just have to have jobs. So you know, we’re not out to bankrupt companies and we’re not going to bankrupt companies. Companies do a fine job with that by themselves, by the bad decisions they make. And that’s a part that I think people don’t understand sometimes. But we don’t make decisions to buy other companies and spend billions of dollars and then turn around and sell them for pennies on the dollar. Corporate boardrooms make those decisions but our workers pay the price for those decisions. Since this round of bargaining, naturally the corporate class and the inner class start doing what they do best, putting fear out there that if they bargain these wages, it’s going to bankrupt the company. It’s not true.

As we’ve said over and over, we’ve ran the numbers. These companies could have doubled the pay and still make billions in profits and not raise the price of cars. But and again, I go back to the last four years prior to our agreement. The price of vehicles went up 30-35%. Our wages went backwards. CEO pay went up 40%. It wasn’t workers that drove those prices. It was one thing: corporate greed and consumer price gouging. And so, you know, they’re always gonna make these excuses and try to villainize the workers and the union for everything that’s wrong with the companies and it’s just not true.

Q: So following on that, GM this week obviously announced a substantial new program for buybacks, accelerated buybacks. Ford and GM both sort of reintroduced strong guidances. Do you feel like there was something left on the table, given that?

A: No, I feel like we extracted everything we could. I mean, look, we had a mountain of issues to try to address this round of bargaining and we were trying to undo decades of going backwards and we delivered in some way on all of those things but we didn’t get everything we wanted. I feel very confident of the contracts we extracted. I mean, these are the richest contracts in the history of this union — ever. But there’s always work to do and we’re going to build on those things and focus on that in the next round of bargaining. And also focus on our next steps, with demands we’re going to make of our government and everyone else. There’s a lot of work to be done, not just at the bargaining table but in the halls of Congress and in the halls of government. So the work doesn’t stop once the contracts, negotiations are finished. It just continues on.

Q: What are some of those policy objectives?

A: Obviously, retirement insecurity is one of the biggest issues in this nation. And you look at it the same in our union, you know, pensions. I mean, in 1980, 60% of private industry had pensions. Today, it’s less than 15%. I think it’s 14-12% have a pension. And when it comes to post-retirement health care, it’s nonexistent in a lot of places and people have to rely on Medicare. You know, hitting that age and hoping that that covers and no, it doesn’t, it leaves people short.

And so I just think there’s a lot of things that we have to really push the government on to make right and it’s not just for retirement security. It’s for current workers that don’t have adequate health care. I mean, the cost of when we talk about the fear people put out there about our contracts and what that could do or couldn’t do, but no one talks about how the prescription drug industry runs away with price increases and price gouging and the cost of insurance goes up every year. And the quality of service seems to go down. And we have to change that. And that’s not just a union problem. That is a global, especially here in America, it’s a national crisis, because we don’t have national health care, like a lot of other countries do. I mean we’re the richest country in the world and we are 26th or so in health care. There’s no excuse for that. But it goes back to the same argument. The Boehner class is running away with everything and so that’s just another part of this battle.

Q. When asked about the organizing efforts at Tesla this week, Elon Musk said, “I don’t like anything which creates a lords and peasants kind of thing. I think the union really tries to create negativity at a company. If Tesla gets unionized, it will be because we deserve it and it’s failed in some way.” Do you have a response to that?

A: Well, I mean, this is a lot bigger than Elon Musk. The irony is, he talks about lords and peasants. I mean, that’s the current status. While he’s getting extremely wealthy off the backs of his workers, and he’s building rocket ships to fly his a– into outer space, workers continue to scrape to get by and this boils down to one issue: working-class people want their lives back. Workers are fed up with scraping to get by paycheck to paycheck, while wealthy people like the Musks of the world just keep taking more and more at the expense of millions of workers. So as I said, it’s not just about Tesla, it’s about all these non-union companies, when we just talked about the 10 major non-union automakers generated 12 trillion in revenue and a trillion dollars in profits in the last decade. It is grossly out of whack. And I go back to this when 26 billionaires have as much wealth as half of humanity, we have a crisis. And there’s only one way to get on the path of fixing that, and organized labor and unions are a great equalizer because we stand up for worker justice. We are the avenue and the vehicle for working-class people to be able to voice their concerns and our opinions without being fired in the process of doing that.

Q: When it comes to a company having a unionized workforce, do you see benefits for the company? And what are those like for something like the Detroit Three, especially with some of the language that you’ve used during the negotiations, and since you’ve been elected, in terms of especially calling the employers enemies?

A: There’s a lot of benefits to having a union. No. 1, you have a stable workforce. When workers are paid what they deserve, they tend to stay. When you have better benefits and conditions, workers tend to stay. You know, we have safer work environments, we fight for health and safety for workers in having a union workforce. A lot of non-union companies don’t have the same standards we have. So there are a lot of benefits for the companies. At the end of the day, what I said was the enemy was global corporations. The bottom line when they are walking away with trillions of dollars in profits on the backs of working-class people. It doesn’t have to be that way. These companies can make billions of dollars in profits and be very successful and their workers can be treated with dignity and given fair wages and good benefits and good conditions. They just choose not to do that, they choose to go exploit workers in other places for even less and less. And that has to change.

Q: So after the Detroit Three agreed to be in new contracts, historic gains, are they still the enemy?

A: Well, we’ll see how things progress. When they treat workers fairly, we’re gonna keep building on that. But there’s a lot of work to be done still. The majority of our members in victory do not have post-retirement health care. It’s a big issue. As it stands right now, you may have workers that just work until they die because if they quit or retire they don’t have adequate health care. So there’s still work to be done, and we have an obligation to our workers, to our members, to do the best we can for them and just make sure that they’re taken care of. And they deserve that. They create these profits.

Q: Now that those contracts have been ratified, where do you stand on the process of endorsing for presidential candidates?

A: You know, that’ll be done at the proper time. We still have work to do. You know, we have national cap conference coming up in January, we still have meetings with the board and meetings with cap council, things like that, talking through the process. Throughout this process in the last eight months, I just felt like it was way too early to make an endorsement. And as we said, from day one, our endorsements are going to be earned. They’re not going to be freely given. You know, the body of work is going to speak for itself and when candidates come to bat for our members, and for our issues, then they’ll get our endorsements.

Q: President Biden stood on the picket line with you and you spoke with him in Belvidere, Illinois, shortly after the tentative agreements were announced. Do you feel like his administration and his work as president has earned him an endorsement?

A: We’ve done some good work together. Let’s think about that when I took over as president of the UAW, battery work was DOA with the Big Three. It was gone. The situation was created with the joint ventures and things. I mean, the companies did that strategically for a reason to try to undermine and circumvent their obligations to our workers, to our members and to our contracts. And we made progress there in this round of bargaining. It’s not finished. There’s still work to do there. There is roughly 30 battery EV plants being planned in this country right now. There’s about six that are actually up and running, 24 still left to be built and and brought to scale. We’re on the right path, I believe now. Naturally, for the first time in history for a sitting U.S. president to visit a picket line is a big deal. I mean, you know, we saved the community in Belvidere, Illinois, that was done. So you know, we’ve done a lot of good work. There’s still work to be done but you know, when you compare that to the body of work of the other lead candidate, there’s no comparison right now.

Q: We heard that the UAW might be calling for a cease-fire in the conflict in the Middle East. Is that correct?

A: Yeah, we met as a board this week. And one of the events we talked about was signing on to the call for a ceasefire. We have a history of standing for peace. We stood against fascism in World War II. And, you know, we stood with South Africa during the apartheid and, you know, we’ve always been on the right side of justice, for people and for humanity, and this to me is another one of those issues. And it’s not taking a side, it’s just the fact that we don’t believe what’s going on right now is the proper way to resolve it. You know, we’re not picking a side between Israel and Palestine but we do not want to see innocent people continue to be killed due to acts of terrorists. I mean, deal with the terrorists and move on what’s going on. We definitely think a cease-fire is the proper pathway and we should be standing together as nations to figure out how to solve that problem.

Q: Now recently taking the headlines in terms of the electric vehicle transition is a pullback in terms of less investment by a $12 billion decrease in planned investment from Ford Motor Co., General Motors has cut back on EV programs, delayed launches. How do you see that for your members about this sort of EV pullback, reemphasizing hybrids potentially, how do you see that? Is it positive, negative, neutral?

A: I see it as neutral right now. We don’t know where it’s gonna go. I mean, we’ve said that from day one, that’s why we didn’t want to be left behind in the event that, you know, I mean, I do believe we’re headed that way. I mean, most of the world’s already there or heading there. We’re behind. We have we know we believe in a green economy. The UAW’s always stood for a clean environment, so we have clean air, clean water, and that’s why this round of bargaining, we didn’t want to abandon the internal combustion engine products. But we did want to secure the battery work and the EV work because not knowing the direction we’re going, we wanted to have both both areas covered, and we did that successfully. So you know, it really, to me, it’s neutral right now as far as how that goes, because we’re still making the ICE vehicles and engines and transmissions. But in the event, things do pick up and go that way, we have our bases covered in that process. So I feel good about where we are.

Q: Ford CFO John Lawler this week emphasized during a Barclays conference about the agreement not including the SK joint venture it has in Tennessee and Kentucky. I think the question comes up given that we did see agreements concerning the joint ventures at GM, and Stellantis. Why have they been not included? What about those future workers?

A: Again, I go back to the Ford Company wanted to talk about being a family and all those things and how they consider their workers family, but they proved through their actions that obviously that’s not the case. So, you know, we had decisions to make in bargaining. And, you know, at the end of the day, what Ford was willing to put on the table with that work was not enough that we felt for our members. So they chose the alternative route, which is we’ll have to organize those places, and we will organize and it’ll be a fight and unfortunately, the Ford family chose to fight rather than work together and, you know, come to an amicable solution where the membership is taken care of. So we’ll fight when we have to fight and that day will be coming.

Q: Now regarding the GM ratification, it was really emphasized about the closeness that was to that voting. For those who maybe did have some obstacles to casting support for that agreement, is there anything specific that you are doing in order to help bring those people along to address maybe some of the concerns that were raised?

A: That’s the beauty of this process. I mean, this is a new day in the UAW. We didn’t go out and browbeat people, we didn’t twist arms, we didn’t call up the leaderships and say get in the plant and beat up your membership and threaten them and tell we’re going to close the plant and all those things that have happened in the past. We let the membership decide. The agreement passed, a majority of members agree with this. That’s the beauty of this process. You know, I can’t tell you the last contract I’ve seen in the Big Three in my lifetime that passed by over 60%. It’s always in the 50s typically or down, so you know I’m very proud of the results. So I’m very proud that the members had a say, the members weren’t pressured to do anything. They gotta have their say. That’s why we were silent throughout that process, to let the members have their say, listen to what they’re saying. You know, I took notes, you know, things that members had problems with, a lot of it was retirement insecurity. And so that doesn’t mean we don’t hear that, doesn’t mean we didn’t know that going in. We knew that. I’m proud of our membership for being vocal. That’s what makes a good union and that’s what builds a strong union.

Q: In addition to the increased income that UAW members are receiving under this agreement, the UAW will also be seeing an increase in income from dues. How do you plan to use those increased dues as a result of this contract?

A: One of the biggest issues is organizing — we’ve got to grow the union. We plan on growing and we’re gonna organize like hell. We’ve just launched our new Stand Up 2.0 campaign to get out and bring social justice and economic justice to non-union workers all over the country, especially in the South. There’s a plethora of areas and issues that we want to be more active in with the membership and offer opportunities for the membership. At the end of the day, we want to continue to build a healthy strike fund. That gives us a lot of power at the bargaining table. We doubled the strike pay for our members. We have the highest strike pay in the nation, probably in the world. But you know that fund could go down quickly too if you have everyone on strike so naturally, we want to continue to build and prepare ourselves for future action, whether it’s organizing, whether it’s bargaining contracts, whether it’s training the membership, training our leadership.

Q: That organizing, does that come from your Strike and Defense Fund or is that something separate? Do you how much are you planning on investing in this new organizing effort, especially given that you did take more of a conservative approach when it came to the strike fund with the stand-up strike versus a national strike?

A: It wasn’t really a conservative approach, the stand-up strike, it was just the fact that we have a responsibility to the membership to use that money as efficiently as possible and to get the maximum result. That was really the route we chose, it was to try to be as effective as possible, but also as efficiently as possible, to be good stewards of the membership’s money and because Big Three is just one part of bargaining. We just finished the Blue Cross tentative agreement. We just finished with the gaming tentative agreements. We got more ag and heavy truck, a lot more contracts coming up. So that doesn’t stop — higher ed. So we’re always bargaining year round. And so, that threat of a strike is always there.

Q: About the organizing — what is the cost of doing that in terms of a national scope?

A: I don’t want to get into budgets or how much we’ve earmarked for this or that, but the membership is made aware of that. And yes, part of the Strike and Defense Fund is organizing. But at the end of the day, whether it’s the Strike and Defense Fund or how we do it, we have to grow the union. And, you know, the Big Three used to be 100% of the American market, the North American market, and the North American market is the cash cow for all the auto companies globally. And so if they’re going to sell their product here, we wanted to build a lot of product here and the workers that build those products here deserve, not just here, all over the world, deserve to have their fair share of the pie in that process. So there’s a lot of work ahead of us. When you’re taking on local corporations that are pulling everything to fight on a global scale, we have to do that also, as organized labor. You know, if we continue to let workers in Mexico and other places be exploited and not stand up with those workers, obviously, that’s an avenue for corporations to pit workers against workers and nations against nations, unions against the unions. And so we have to come together. We’ve talked to a lot of unions already and talk to IndustriALL, one of our global networks, and working with them and there’s, like I said, a lot of work ahead of us.

Q: Do you mind if I ask you one more question about your personal beliefs and some of the criticism that’s been thrown out there. Some people, based off the language about rebuilding the economy and focus on the working class, have called you a socialist. How do you respond to to that? What are your feelings on capitalism?

A: I don’t care about labels. I mean, that’s the problem in this country is we love to put labels on everything. Look, I believe in humanity. I care about people. I talk about my faith. You know, I do a daily reading every day. I pray every morning when I get up and you know, the Bible teaches love. That’s the basis and even Jesus was asked by a lawyer, tested: what’s the greatest commandment? It is love the Lord thy God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind. The second is like it: Love thy neighbor as thyself and love your fellow human being and, you know, when there’s poverty anywhere in this nation, anywhere in this world, it matters and we should want to eradicate poverty, especially when 26 billionaires have as much wealth as half of humanity. As I said, it’s a crisis. Call it what you want. I mean, I’m a human being, I care about other humans. I don’t want to watch other human beings suffer. Most human beings don’t want to see that happen. Look at when disasters happen, you know when hurricanes hit, people’s hearts go out for other people. They care about other people — that is humanity. We’ve been so inundated in the last 40 years in this country with greed. Greed is good and take care of yourself and screw everybody else. And that is not what humanity’s about. It’s not what most people care about. Most people care about having dignity in their life, and they care about their neighbors. And so, you know, people want to put labels on that. I call it what you want to call it. I’m a human being. I care about people. And I believe a union’s made a great difference in my life. And I believe a union is a pathway for all working class people to have a better life and to eradicate poverty in the school. So I’m not big on labels, but don’t really care what people call me.

Q: Appreciate it. Thank you so much for your time.