IT'S OFFICIAL: Reformer Shawn Fain Wins the UAW Presidency, Talks Plans with Steven Greenhouse in Exclusive Interview

“We need to run contract campaigns where we engage the membership and go after their demands. We haven’t done this in my lifetime.”

Steven Greenhouse

Shawn Fain, who is set to be the next UAW president Photo courtesy of UAW Members United

Challenger Shawn Fain has officially won the historic runoff election for the presidency of the United Auto Workers (UAW), defeating incumbent Ray Curry in a nail-biting finish.

Fain’s win was all but certain leading into continued count of challenged ballots on March 25. Fain was leading Curry 69,386 to 68,881, a difference of 505 votes with 586 remaining unresolved, challenged ballots, according to the UAW’s Independent Monitor.

According to an earlier statement released by UAW Members United, Fain’s victory was all but assured.” Fain led the UAW Members United slate, promising more militancy and rank-and-file participation; the slate has won every seat it contested in the UAW’s officer elections.

Fain’s outright victory marks the first-ever election in which UAW members voted directly to elect their top officers. Previously, the UAW’s top officials were elected by delegates at a union convention. It’s also historic because it ends 77 consecutive years of rule by the Administration Caucus, which was founded by Walter Reuther and has run the union since 1946.

This election was not just a race between two candidates, it was a referendum on the direction of the UAW. For too long, the UAW has been controlled by leadership with a top-down, company union philosophy who have been unwilling to confront management, and as a result we’ve seen nothing but concessions, corruption, and plant closures,” Fain said in a statement released March 25. While the election was close, it is clear that our membership has long wanted to see a more aggressive approach with our employers. We now have a historic opportunity to get back to setting the standard across all sectors, and to transform the UAW into a member-led, fighting union once again, and we are going to take it. The future of the working class is at stake.”

Fain first joined the UAW in 1994 as an electrician at a Chrysler (now Stellantis) metal casting plant in Kokomo, Ind. He has served five terms as a Skilled Trades Committeeperson and Shop Chair at Local 1166 in Kokomo. Fain has pledged to make the UAW, now with 400,000 members, a more bottom-up union that will take a tougher stance in bargaining. His platform promises an end to corruption, concessions and tiers, which would mean an end to the detested two-tier wage system that the UAW previously agreed to at GM, Ford and Stellantis.

Fain and Curry were the top two finishers in a five-candidate race for a four-year term as UAW president. A two-person runoff was held because neither Fain nor Curry obtained the required 50% of the initial vote. The UAW’s international executive board had elected Curry as president in July 2021, after the worst corruption scandal in the UAW’s history — a bribery-and-embezzlement scandal in which two former UAW presidents went to prison.

Among Fain’s biggest challenges ahead are this year’s contract talks with the three Detroit automakers and making good on his promise to end tiers. Beyond that, Fain will face the task of uniting a highly divided union and organizing more workplaces, from universities to casinos to auto plants in the South.

Fain spoke with In These Times before these results were announced and his victory was certain. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Steven Greenhouse: Congratulations, or almost congratulations. How do you feel about winning this important election?

Shawn Fain: Just thinking about where I’ve come from — three of my four grandparents were early UAW members — it’s an honor of a lifetime to be elected. And it’s an honor to see that the members wanted change. For too long the membership really hasn’t had a voice, and we’ve seen the result of what happens when we don’t have a voice and have healthy debate. I’ve always been a firm believer in debates — they’re very healthy and good for our union. I’m excited to see where we go in rebuilding and reforming this union going forward.

SG: After winning such a hotly contested race, what do you plan to do to bring this very divided union together?

SF: If we want unity, we have to regain the trust of the membership. Talk is cheap. Trust has to be established through our actions. No matter who members voted for — and whether or not they voted, because so many didn’t vote — it’s going to take all of us to rebuild this union and take on the challenges ahead. Going into Big Three bargaining [with GM, Ford and Stellantis], we need to run contract campaigns where we engage the membership and go after their demands. We haven’t done this in my lifetime. We need to really re-engage the membership and completely eliminate this top-down hierarchy that’s been in place for so long.

(From left to right) LaShawn English who was elected Region 1 Director, Margaret Mock who was elected Secretary-Treasurer, Shawn Fain who is all but certain to be the next UAW President, Mike Booth who was elected Vice President (Photo courtesy of UAW Members United)

SG: What will the UAW be seeking in its negotiations with the Big Three?

SF: I really believe that eliminating tiers is huge. We also need to get stronger job security language and look at addressing the high cost of living and helping our retirees who haven’t obtained anything in over 15 years and securing new work. We have to stand up against plant closures and idlings.

"In my 28 years with the UAW, anytime we went on strike with the Big Three it was more or less a show ... Strikes can’t just be about putting on a show."

Look at these companies — last year alone they made over $35 billion in profits. They’ve been flush with profits for over a decade. Our workers generate these profits. The bottom line is, our members have been left behind. Cost of living and job security language were suspended back in 2009. In my opinion, there is no excuse that those things weren’t reinstated, in the 2015 or 2019 bargaining. Obviously, the [union] leadership had other priorities. 

The frustrating part to me is that while the corporations have enjoyed the spoils of these record profits for over a decade, a majority of our members haven’t kept up. We have to end tiers — that’s a top priority going forward. We cannot survive as a union with multiple classes of workers performing the same work. That’s not what a union is about. Everybody’s got to have an equal stake.

SG: No concessions” was a very important part of your campaign. What are specific examples of how you plan to achieve no concessions in the Big Three contract negotiations? And how will your bargaining strategy and tactics be different from, or similar to, those of your predecessors as UAW president?

SF: I don’t really want to divulge strategies or tactics, but I’m confident the membership is going to see very different tactics and a very different style of bargaining than what they’ve seen in the past. Honestly, in my 28 years with the UAW, anytime we went on strike with the Big Three it was more or less a show, rather than actually targeting a goal. Strikes can’t just be about putting on a show.

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SG: What technological and other developments in the auto industry — including the development of electric vehicles (EVs) — most concern you, and how do you think the UAW should respond?

SF: Technology is always changing. Look at the advancement of the automobile over the entire history of the UAW.

But our members don’t show up to work every day because they’re passionate about combustion engines or different models. They’re passionate about their families and being able to have a decent standard of living. Looking at new technology, especially this trend with EVs, we have to rein in the companies and their complete disregard for our members and our master agreements when it comes to the joint ventures [Ultium Cells, a manufacturer of batteries for EVs, is a joint venture between General Motors and LG Energy Solution, for example].

I believe that was a huge failure on the past administration not to act immediately when the first joint venture was announced [to assure workers in the joint venture were unionized and became part of the Big Three master agreement].

SG: How do you plan to build the power necessary to avoid concessions and tiers and to win some of the more ambitious demands coming from the membership, like 40 hours’ pay for 30 hours’ work?

SF: In the past, when I would be at a meeting at Black Lake [a UAW conference and education center], in my spare time I would go to the library there and go through some old books and a lot of the old [UAW] magazines. It’s amazing to me that our top leadership in the 1930s and 1940s were talking about a 32-hour work week. And you know, 80 years later, in bargaining in 2019, our leadership was agreeing to seven-day, 12-hour schedules.

I don’t consider [a 30-hour work week] ambitious. I consider it almost a human rights issue. Our lives, our workers’ lives, can’t revolve around the companies. Our members are workers. Their health is sacrificed. I can’t count how many of our members have had knee replacements and repetitive injuries. That’s the reality of standing there on assembly lines working day after day, seven days a week, 10 hours a day, 12 hours a day.

"I don’t consider [a 30-hour work week] ambitious. I consider it almost a human rights issue. Our lives ... can’t revolve around the companies."

So again, we have to engage the membership. We’re going to have to run contract campaigns to get prepared, to get the membership prepared. There’s going to be a fight, but together, we implement these strategies, and we’re going to get the best contract we can for our membership.

SG: Can you be more specific about what really running a contract campaign might entail?

SF: In all the years I’ve been a member, we’ve never really had the leadership come in and prepare us. Sure, they’ll say, Save your money.” But that’s not really preparing the membership. We’ve got to engage our members — so they see we’re all in this together, and they see that leadership from us. Things like organizing days of action — maybe we all wear buttons that say End All Tiers” on a certain day. We can get into the locals and meet with the local leadership and the membership, and they see that we’re making these plans and building excitement around our issues. This is what we have to do. We’ve all got a stake in this. 

If we’re going to have success, we have to hold the line together and really engage the members and educate them — and not wait until a September 14 deadline to ask, What are we doing? What are we striking for? What’s going on?” It’s really just preparing the members for the fight ahead and what we have to do — and also building a sense of camaraderie between everybody so that we are all in this fight together. Like I said, it’s not happened in my 28 years with the union.

SG: The UAW has increased strike pay to $500 per week. What are your next steps to make a strike-ready union, and how are you and your team going to approach strikes differently from the Administration Caucus?

SF: Again, communication with the membership is key — and with the public and the communities that we work in. Our members are involved in community groups, in everything in the community. Our members are coaches. We support the United Way. We have to engage community organizations and the general public in our communities and run member campaigns. 

How will we approach strikes differently? First of all, we’re going to be willing to do it, we’re going to be willing to take action. We’ve seen countless plants idled and closed, and there’s been zero action from the leadership. It’s unacceptable. If the companies continue down that path, then they’re going to see a very different response from us. We’re not going to sit idly by as plants are idled and closed. We have to hold the line against corporate greed — and not just for our members. We will tie that into why it’s important for the community. Look at a situation like Belvidere, Ill., [where Jeep closed an assembly plant last February, laying off 1,350 workers], or other areas where plants have been idled or closed. We can sync the whole community when those things happen. 

SG: What are your plans for using the UAW’s massive war chest, its large strike fund, to advance rank-and-file power? 

SF: I’ve been talking about engaging the members, but we have to think bigger than just ourselves. We have to engage other unions, we have to work across borders. These companies we’re taking on are global conglomerates, they’re on a global scale. And as a union, we’re not. So we have to engage all of our fellow brothers and sisters and other unions and other countries and plan actions together and support each other. Across the border in Mexico, there’s a lot of opportunities where the UAW can really make a difference. There are a lot of tools out there that we can implement to help workers in other areas — and in return also help ourselves. So we just can’t build a massive war chest and let it sit there. It’s there for a reason.

SG: One of your campaign’s main promises was no corruption.” One of the rank-and-file’s main concerns is no corruption. What are the specific measures you plan to take to ensure no corruption?

SF: Once I take office, we’re going to insist on an ethics pledge from all the leadership and staff. We’re definitely not going to tolerate any — I mean any — of what happened. It will not be tolerated. The membership deserves nothing but the highest ethics and the highest level of service, and that’s what they’re going to get with us. I intend to work hand-in-hand with the independent monitor [Neil Barofsky, whom a federal judge appointed to help oversee the union after the corruption scandal]. One promise I will make is, you won’t be reading anything in a monitor’s report saying that I’m running interference or trying to circumvent issues that are going on.

"I’m a member of UAWD. I joined because I believed in reforming this union. I wouldn’t be sitting here right now if it wasn’t for UAWD."

The membership has to have faith in the leadership. The fact that they have elected the top leaders for the first time in our lifetimes, I do believe it’s going to be different now. The beauty of having an elected top leadership is we will be held accountable by the majority. If there’s things going on, it won’t just be me picking my buddies to be the next leaders. The membership will make that decision.

SG: What do you think the UAW should do to organize more workers? What are the sectors, the companies, the shops that you and your team will look at in terms of new organizing?

SF: I always think back to my grandparents’ generation when the UAW went from nothing and exploded in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. We have to get back to where we set the standard. Bargaining good contracts and organizing go hand-in-hand. When you look at us and look at the transplants and their wages, their benefits, it looks the same. There’s over a million nonunion auto and auto parts workers in the country. We have the EV explosion that’s going on right now. It’s not just batteries — there’s a lot of other areas. There’s a lot of opportunity out there for us as a union, and we just have to have the right people in place and get solid strategies put together. I’m very confident with the communications team, and we will build the organizing and research teams, and we’ll be working hand-in-hand, and we’ll have a solid strategy and we’re going to be very aggressive.

SG: Will you take a new run at seeking to organize Volkswagen, Nissan or other auto plants in the South? Can the UAW win in the South?

SF: We’re going to put our teams in place. We’re going to assess organizing strategies and then plan accordingly. But I believe, yes, we can win in the South. I do believe that bargaining good contracts, starting with the Big Three coming up right out the gate, is going to be a huge part of that. We’ve got to show people what we are capable of doing and that there is a difference. We really have to look at unconventional ways of doing things, unconventional strategies. I have some ideas. Some people I’ve been meeting with have ideas, but I don’t want to go into depth on some of that right now. But I do believe we can win and I believe we will.

SG: Over 20% of UAW members are academic workers. What will you do to give them a larger voice in the union and to integrate them better into the union?

SF: Two of the members on the International Executive Board are from higher ed now. I think that’s a great start. I’ve said throughout that I intend to involve leaders from every sector of our union as we rebuild the union. We’re a very diverse union compared to what we were with my grandparents’ union. Back then it was the Big Three and that was it. We’re very diverse now with the higher ed group, with gaming and tech and professional and all the different sectors. We represent ag and aerospace. And so the leadership needs to reflect that — and in everything we do, everybody has to have an equal stake in this. At the plant level, one trade may have six people, but another trade has 500. Those six people should have an equal stake. Whether we look at a sector with 10,000 members or a sector with 100,000, we have to treat everybody equally. We have to be just as aggressive with a smaller sector as with the bigger sectors. 

SG: In recent years, women and workers of color have come to represent an ever-larger share of the UAW’s membership. What will you do to assure that they have adequate voice and are adequately involved in the union?

SF: When we put our slate together, we were very cognizant of that. Margaret Mock [recently elected UAW’s secretary-treasurer] was our second person in command and is an African American woman, and so is LaShawn English [elected director of Region 1]. Rich Boyer [elected a vice president] and Brandon Mancilla [elected director of Region 9A] are both of Latino background.

"We were silent on our nation’s leadership [blocking a threatened railroad strike], and I don’t believe we should have been silent."

I’m very proud of my work at our training center from when we reorganized our skilled trade apprenticeship program and tried to find a way to increase diversity in the trades. If you look at skilled trades, in the past, it was predominantly white men. Since we restructured how we select apprentices, the number of women and minorities we have added to the apprenticeship program has more than doubled since the last contract. I’m proud of that work. Still, we always have to improve on this.

The team I’m going to put around me is going to be representative of the workers we represent. We’re going to have a lot of women and people from minority groups who are in key positions in this union, and we have to do a better job identifying people and bringing them along and training up the future. We really have to look at our younger members as we move forward as a union, involving them and educating them so that when our time is done, whether it’s four years from now, eight years from now or however many years, there’s a whole group of people behind us that carry the torch.

SG: With regard to caucus structure: Will the pro-reform Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) caucus, which strongly supported your candidacy, continue to exist? What happens to the reform effort now that so many of your candidates are in office?

SF: I’m not going to answer for UAWD. I don’t run UAWD. They have their leadership in place. I assume they’re going to exist and keep going. I’m a member of UAWD. I joined because I believed in reforming this union. I wouldn’t be sitting here right now if it wasn’t for UAWD. I don’t forget that there was a great network of hard-working people from every sector that worked hard to fight for reforming this union. I don’t lose sight of that.

Upfront, it doesn’t matter if a person is a member of UAWD or not. We represent every member of this union, no matter what caucus or what background they come from. The membership comes first. The membership will always be the top priority. But I’m not going to lose sight of who helped me get where I am.

SG: With regard to your legislative and political focus, where does political pressure fit into your vision for the UAW? What are the goals you and your team will try to accomplish beyond the shop floor, beyond the factory?

SF: The UAW has always been at the forefront of pushing legislation on issues like voting rights and healthcare for all. Our members have healthcare, but a lot don’t have healthcare after they retire. National healthcare issues like that are huge on the shop floor and for everyone in society.

When it comes to political focus, we can’t just go along and get along with the Democratic Party. Like me being elected now, I’m going to be held accountable, and we have to hold our elected leaders accountable. It’s sometimes frustrating for me to see in every election cycle, we’re always there with boots on the ground, manning phone banks, going door to door, doing whatever we can to help these people get elected. We have to expect the same in return from them when it comes time for our issues to be heard and pushed. We can’t have lip service. We have to see results. 

I’ll be honest: I was disappointed in [Biden and Congress] with what happened with the railway workers a few months back. We were silent on our nation’s leadership [blocking a threatened railroad strike], and I don’t believe we should have been silent. I think we should have been extremely vocal about it. If we’re going to support these elected leaders and they’re saying they support labor, then when it comes to the big issues, they better support labor. 

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Steven Greenhouse is a former New York Times labor reporter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present and Future of American Labor.

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