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News / Business

Unions see new breed of leaders

Workers reach boiling point amid rising costs, pay gaps

By Associated Press
Published: September 18, 2023, 8:21pm
3 Photos
United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain.
United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain. (paul sancya/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

NEW YORK — There will be no Emmy Awards tonight and there are thousands of autoworkers on picket lines in Missouri, Michigan and Ohio in a seemingly rapid reemergence of organized labor this year.

Unions have nowhere near the pull, or members, that they did decades ago, yet something has changed. There’s no single explanation, but the boiling point we’re seeing today comes amid soaring costs of living and a widening gap between what workers and top executives are paid. Workers who were asked to make sacrifices during the pandemic even as corporate profits soared are now asking for a bigger piece of the pie.

Those demands have sparked grassroots organizing efforts across the country in the last year. And some of the nation’s largest unions have simultaneously been at the center of heated contract negotiations — with writers and actors hitting Hollywood picket lines, unionized autoworkers striking at Detroit’s Big Three and UPS reaching a new deal to avert a work stoppage that could have significantly disrupted the nation’s supply chain.

Leading those efforts are new union leaders.

Here are some faces you should know.

Shawn Fain: United Auto Workers

Before Shawn Fain became the rallying voice for thousands of unionized autoworkers striking at major car companies today, he was an electrician for Chrysler in his hometown of Kokomo, Ind.

Fain became president of United Auto Workers this year, but his time with the union began at that then-Chrysler plant in 1994.

Fain won a tight election to lead the UAW promising a more confrontational stance with big automakers. He vowed to clean up the union and unite members following a wide-ranging scandal that landed two former presidents in prison.

Fain has engaged aggressively with General Motors, Ford and Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler). Months of contentious contract talks erupted into targeted strikes last week against all three Detroit automakers for the first time in the union’s history.

The union under Fain has threatened to hit more plants if there is not enough movement from automakers during negotiations. The UAW wants across-the-board wage increases of 36 percent over four years, about twice what automakers are offering.

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“They could double our raises and not raise car prices and still make millions of dollars in profits,” Fain said last week. “We’re not the problem. Corporate greed is the problem.”

Sean O’Brien: International Brotherhood of Teamsters

Much of what you need to know about Teamsters president Sean O’Brien is right there in his handle for X/Twitter: @TeamstersSOB. Yes, those are O’Brien’s initials, sort of, but the underlying message is clear.

O’Brien, a Boston-area native who grew up in a Teamsters family, worked with then-president Hoffa as the chief negotiator in the Teamsters’ 2017 contract talks with UPS, but Hoffa abruptly fired him. The contract agreement was widely criticized by members and passed only through a procedural technicality, with a majority of votes cast in opposition.

O’Brien announced a union presidential campaign in 2021 against Hoffa, who bowed out.

O’Brien immediately zeroed in on UPS and sought to right in their contract what many in the union saw as numerous wrongs. The Teamsters secured a lucrative contract last month that boosted wages and eliminated a second, lower-paid tier for some drivers. The winning margin: 86 percent.

O’Brien’s UPS campaign appears to be a prelude to organizing delivery drivers for the online behemoth, Amazon.com.

“This is the template for how workers should be paid and protected nationwide, and nonunion companies like Amazon better pay attention,” O’Brien said.

Fran Drescher:  SAG-AFTRA

Fran Drescher rose to fame as the co-creator and star of “The Nanny” in the ’90s. She’s become the first president of Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists to preside over a strike since 1980.

Actors have been on picket lines since July and along with screenwriters who struck earlier this year, they’re seeking better pay in an industry vastly changed due to streaming and the emergence of artificial intelligence.

Since becoming president of SAG-AFTRA in 2021, Drescher has become a firebrand voice for the creative minds in Hollywood.

Drescher told The Associated Press that this moment in Hollywood is a larger stand against corporate leaders who value shareholders over the people who create their product.

“At some point you have to say no more,” she said in recent interview. “I think it’s a conversation now about the culture of big business, and how it treats everybody up and down the ladder in the name of profit.”

Unlike the writers’ negotiations, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents major studios, has yet to resume talks with the actors guild.

Writers Guild of America Leaders

Screenwriters have been on strike since early May. Talks between WGA leadership and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers resumed last month, but haltingly. Those on strike seek more pay, smaller writing staffs for shorter seasons of television shows, and control over artificial intelligence in the screenwriting process.

Today, news and documentary writer Michael Winship is the president of the Writers Guild of America East. TV writer Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, WGAE’s current vice president, will become the next president after voting closes later this week.

Takeuchi Cullen, whose TV credits include “The Ordained” and “Law & Order: SVU,” tweeted last month that, “I will lead @WGAEast in our epic battle for fair pay.”

“This is not your father’s Council. Your elected representatives are tireless, passionate, and in the thick of our careers,” she wrote. “We have skin in the game. ”

Meredith Stiehm, a writer and executive producer who created the CBS procedural “Cold Case,” has been president of the Writers Guild of America West since 2021.

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