With the United Auto Workers’against the big three automakers, union leader Shawn Fain CBS News’ Face the Nation that he’s fighting against “poverty wages” and “greedy CEOs.” His fiery rhetoric and creative approach to the strike is underscoring his difference with prior union management, according to experts.
Fain was relatively unknown outside the union until September 14, when Detroit’s Big Three automakers failed to reachbefore their contract with UAW members expired. Since the strike began, Fain has become the public face of the union’s fight to extract higher wages and benefits from the automakers.
He’s also earning comparisons to Senator Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont, with comments such as Fain’s remark to Face the Nation on Sunday that “the billionaire class keeps taking more and more and the working class keeps getting left behind.”
“He’s creative, I will give him that,” Harry Katz, the Jack Sheinkman Professor of Collective Bargaining at Cornell University, told CBS MoneyWatch. “He seems to want to prove over and over to the members that he’s different.”
Fain was elected as president of the UAW just six months ago in a tight runoff race that tipped in his favor by only a few hundred votes. In the lead-up to the election, Fain stressed that he wanted to run the union differently, criticizing prior management for being “way too close” to automakers and failing to fight for their workers.
“To me, we’re at a crossroads,” Fain told Bloomberg Law in 2022 as he was running for election to be UAW president. “We have to get leaders in there who are going to take action and be proactive and not wait for things to happen then react to it.”
Here’s what to know about Fain.
When did Shawn Fain join the UAW?
Fain, 54, started with the UAW in 1994, when he worked as an electrician for Chrysler at its Kokomo Casting Plant in Kokomo, Indiana, his hometown.
The union was familiar to Fain as he comes from a family of UAW members, with his grandfather starting at Chrysler in 1937, the year that workers at that automaker joined the union. Two of his grandparents were UAW GM retirees, and Fain carries one of his grandfather’s pay stubs in his wallet to remind him of his family’s beginnings.
His role in the union included serving his local at “every level,” according to the UAW. That included being elected five terms as a skilled trades committeeman and the plant shop chairman for Local 1166.
Shop chair is “among the most demanding jobs in the union in that you’re dealing with grievances and issues on the shop floor all the time,” University of California, Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken told NPR.
In 2009, he became a UAW negotiator, and then in 2012 became an international representative.
What is Fain known for?
In prior years, Fain was outspoken about some labor agreements, telling Bloomberg News that he was against ratifying a two-tier initiative in 2007 that meant new hires would be paid at a lower rate and be excluded from some traditional benefits such as a pension plan.
“I faced a lot of blowback back then,” he noted.
But it was an embezzlement scandal at the UAW that opened the door to new voices like Fain in the union’s top leadership. That case involved more than a dozen UAW officials who were accused of siphoning money for their own uses, ranging from gambling to buying cocaine.
What was Fain doing during the UAW scandal?
During the embezzlement scandal, Fain was working as an international representative at the Stellantis training center, overseeing the skills training programs. Stellantis, which was formed in 2021 in a merger between Fiat Chrysler and European automaker Groupe PSA, owns Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and RAM, along with major foreign brands including Citroën, Peugeot and Maserati.
“I always felt like leadership was way too close to the company, but really the only people who could know what was really happening were the people who had to sign off on expenditures. I wasn’t in that type of role then,” he told Bloomberg News. “I’ve been working with the federal government, with teams of attorneys — everything — trying to clean up and reorganize.”
What is Shawn Fain’s salary?
The most recent data available on Fain’s salary with the UAW is from 2022, prior to his election as president, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Last year, Fain earned $160,130 as an administrative assistant for the union, a union filing shows.
Prior UAW president Raymond Curry earned $267,126 that year.
What does the UAW want from the automakers?
Fain told CBS News’ Face the Nation on Sunday that the union’s demands “are just. We’re asking for our fair share in this economy and the fruits of our labor.”
The strike involves three factories: a GM assembly plant in Wentzville, Missouri; a Ford assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan; and a Stellantis assembly complex in Toledo, Ohio. The plants build some of the automakers’, including the Jeep Wrangler and the Ford Bronco.
The UAW’s goal is to pressure automakers to provide a 36% pay increase across a four-year contract; pension benefits for all employees; limited use of temporary workers; more paid time off, including a; and more job protections, including the right to strike over plant closings.
Is Fain’s strategy working?
His strategy of targeting three factories in the UAW’s initial move “certainly created more uncertainty,” said Cornell’s Katz. Fain likely wants to prove “he’s a tough, militant guy that’s not going to agree to concessions.”
But it’s likely that the labor dispute will be settled due to economic circumstances, rather than due to the influence of individual labor leaders, he added. The fact is, Katz added, that the autoworkers are bargaining from a position of strength, and as thus are likely to earn many — but not all — of their demands.
For instance, because the labor market is tight, autoworkers’ spouses or partners are likely working, giving the employees more bargaining power and economic flexibility to handle a strike, he added.
The UAW “will get a strong agreement — it’s a question of how and when they reach a compromise,” Katz said.
Katz’s prediction: the UAW will win a 3% annual raise in base pay over a multi-year contract, as well as a reinstatement of the cost-of-living adjustment and a lump-sum payment to make up for the hit from inflation during the pandemic. Some temporary workers will be converted into permanent employees, and the wages of the bottom-tier workers will be brought up closer to the top tier. But, he added, it’s unlikely they UAW get the return of a traditional pension.
“I would reject [the automakers’] offers just as he is rejecting them,” Katz added. “More power to him. When company profits and sales are strong, there’s a low employment rate and a strong economy, unions do rather well.”