Michigan is expecting a visit on Tuesday from U.S. President Joe Biden, who announced on Friday that he would join the picket line in the historic autoworker strike against Detroit’s Big Three. Biden is making the visit after being publicly invited to the picket line by the president of the United Auto Workers (UAW), Shawn Fain, an electrician who has been in the union for 29 years and is revolutionizing how the UAW makes its demands heard. Fain, 55, is the first leader in the union’s 88-year history to be elected democratically by its 140,000 members.
Until last March’s elections — which Fain won in a runoff by a margin of fewer than 500 votes — union officials were elected by delegates in a procedure of endogamous cronyism that led to widespread corruption. It was precisely an agreement with the Department of Justice, which was made after union leaders were charged, that established that the UAW would hold direct ballots. This gave Fain, who had clashed with union leadership, a shot at becoming president.
Three of Fain’s four grandparents were affiliated with the UAW. One of them started working at Chrysler in 1937, the year the union emerged from the Flint Sit-Down Strike. Indeed, Fain has nodded to this historic movement by calling the current strike Stand Up. The union leader also says that he always carries one of his grandfather’s pay stubs with him to remember where he comes from. Fain joined the UAW when he began working in 1994 as an electrician at the Chrysler casting plant in Kokomo, Indiana, his hometown.
He immediately stood out as a union leader in his plant of origin, where he became plant shop chairman. In 2007, when the car companies were going into crisis mode and the unions agreed to make concessions, Shawn opposed the ratification of the collective agreement that established a two-tier wage system that halved the pay of new workers. “Two-tier wages have no place in this union. [...] If you vote for this agreement, you might as well get a gun and shoot yourself in the head,” he said bluntly.
One of the key demands of the Stand Up Strike is to put an end to the two-tier wage system (or at least, to bring the conditions of new hires closer to those of senior workers). He also opposed plant idling and closures, and other agreements that, in his opinion, did not serve the interests of UAW members.
He participated in the negotiations to save Chrysler from bankruptcy, in which the union obtained a share package. The company was later acquired by Fiat (Stellantis is the result of the merger of Fiat Chrysler with the PSA-Peugeot Citroën group). After holding various positions in the union’s structure, he challenged the incumbent president, Ray Curry, in the March elections. His campaign was more combative, although he maintained a calm tone: his speeches were direct, but composed. His two big promises were to be tougher on companies and to clean up the union, which had seen two of its presidents imprisoned.
After being elected, Fain called for unity. “For too long, this union has been divided. We’ve been divided by corruption and self-serving leadership at the top. The UAW once set the standard for what a clean, progressive, member-led union looks like. But the last few decades have seen us veer far off course. UAW officers, the people elected to lead and serve this great union, have taken bribes, stolen dues, and betrayed the trust of the membership. That ends here,” he said in a video posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.
To mobilize members to support the Stand Up Strike, Fain pointed to the record profits of the Big Three and the multimillion-dollar salaries of their CEOs. “We’re not the problem. Corporate greed is the problem,” he said. He has also broken with the tradition of singling out one of the Big Three as a strike target, and then demanding that the other two match the conditions the company agrees to. Instead, Fain has decided to attack all three at once, but selectively and gradually. He called a strike at only three plants, one at General Motors, another at Ford, and another at Stellantis. Protected by regulations that do not require advance notice, his goal was to “keep companies guessing.” This approach allows him to use both the carrot and the stick. After a week of negotiations, the UAW punished GM and Stellantis with strikes in 38 more facilities, while Ford was spared for having shown a greater willingness to negotiate
Workers who spoke to EL PAÍS last week support his strategy. “He knows what he’s doing, it’s my first strike,” said a GM employee in Ypsilanti (Michigan). “It’s a strategy and it seems to be working,” said another in Toledo (Ohio). Fain is not particularly charismatic, but he conveys security and self-confidence. He uses social media to communicate with the union members. Last Friday, he wore a camouflage shirt when he invited Biden to join workers on the picket lines. The president accepted, and today, he will be traveling to Michigan.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition