Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers union since March, has declared “war” on the Detroit Three automakers, with contract demands that even he calls “audacious,” including proposals for a 46 percent raise, a return to traditional pensions, and a 32-hour workweek.
Now the 54-year-old who began work as an electrician at a Chrysler casting plant in 1994, is threatening to take his 150,000 UAW members out on strike. If he doesn’t have contracts with General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis, maker of Jeep and Chrysler models, by the Sept. 14 deadline, the UAW could strike all three simultaneously — something it has never done.
“The deadline is the deadline,” Fain said an interview earlier this month at the UAW’s Solidarity House headquarters along the Detroit River.
Fain, whose demeanor leans more Sunday school teacher than fire-breathing union boss, has brought back a tough-talking style evoking the labor movement’s roots in America. He’s part of a new generation of leaders, like International Brotherhood of Teamsters President Sean O’Brien, who earlier this month won a historic five-year contract with United Parcel Service, and Lynne Fox, president of Workers United which says it has unionized more than 350 Starbucks stores.
These aggressive labor leaders want to rewrite the social compact with everyday workers around a simple question: Why not us?
The pandemic and technology allowed more salaried staffers than ever to work from home. Now service and factory workers who had faced COVID’s dangers on the job want to improve their work-life balance, too. And with inflation eating into everyone’s pocketbooks, polls show there’s a growing support for the labor movement.
Fain won a narrow victory of less than 1 percent by positioning himself as a reformer out to overhaul a union rocked by a corruption scandal. Thirteen UAW officials were convicted of illegally using union dues to finance lavish lifestyles and the union remains under the oversight of a federal monitor.
When the scandal first came to light, Fain said “it was a gut punch,” but he’d had suspicions because the union leadership delivered weak contracts in times of prosperity.
“We have a horrible history in this union of setting expectations low and settling lower,” Fain said. “Those days are over.”
Now it’s payback time, Fain contends, for union members swindled out of good deals as auto companies banked record profits while giving hourly workers two 3 percent raises over the past four years that failed to keep up with inflation.
“Mary Barra made $200 million in the last nine years,” Fain said, referring to GM’s chief executive officer; company filings confirm this. “Our wages went backwards. There’s something wrong there.”
Fain says automakers’ recent record profits were made possible by UAW concessions given during the government bailouts and bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler in the Great Recession of 2009. Now he wants to make up for those sacrifices — plus more.
Beyond big raises and a shorter workweek, the UAW’s demands include restoring cost-of-living increases, an end to a tiered system that pays new workers less, restoring retiree health care, and boosting pension payments.
The automakers counter that meeting those demands would threaten their existence, driving up labor costs by $80 billion and increasing total pay and benefit expenses to more than $150 an hour, from about $64 now, Bloomberg has reported. As the three automakers collectively spend more than $100 billion to make the shift to electric vehicles, they contend they can’t afford a generous contract with the UAW.
In fact, higher labor costs contributed to Chrysler, Ford, and GM’s lack of price competitiveness against foreign brands in the 1990s and 2000s. But pressure is on Fain to deliver a good deal, since his margin of victory was so slim.
“The car companies cannot possibly agree to his demands and even if he succeeds, his members still lose because the car companies will go bankrupt,” Johan de Nysschen, a consultant and former GM and Volkswagen executive, said in an interview. Fain, he added, is “promising the sun, the moon, the Earth, and the stars to people who are, frankly, easily impressed.”
Fain bristles at the notion that his blue-collar members are asking for too much. He sees the companies’ arguments about being competitive as code for “a race back to slave labor.” He points to Stellantis North American chief operating officer Mark Stewart who recently lectured workers on economic realism from his vacation home in Acapulco, Mexico. Stellantis declined to comment on Stewart’s whereabouts.
“When your CEOs are making 300 to 400 times more than the average worker, and they want to talk to you about economic realism, that’s pretty pathetic,” Fain said.