By BRIAN A. HOWEY
Buried deep in the wallet of Shawn Fain is a well-worn pay stub of one of his two grandfathers. It’s a reminder of where the new United Auto Workers president comes from, here in the City of Firsts.
Two of his grandparents were General Motor retirees at Kokomo and one worked at Chrysler starting in 1937. Nine years later in 1946, the UAW’s negotiation strategy with the then-Big Three American automakers was to bargain with one, and then use that template for the other two.
Fain is now in the vortex of the American labor movement. He was elected as president of the UAW in March after beginning his career as an electrician at the Chrysler Kokomo Casting Plant. His election was seen as a sea change in the world of auto-making.
“He’s always been a labor activist. He was always locally popular with rank and file members,” said former Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, who worked for Haynes International and was a union president at the same time as Fain was at Chrysler (now a unit of Stellantis).
But Fain is doing his negotiations in Detroit far differently than his predecessors. The UAW’s contracts at the Detroit automakers expire at 11:59 p.m. Thursday. He said on Wednesday that while there has been progress, the four sides are still far apart.
“All sides are watching what the others are doing, then trying to match them or offer something that is more advantageous to their balance sheets while still meeting a union demand,” the Detroit Free Press reported. “That’s precisely what UAW President Shawn Fain had in mind when he decided this year to negotiate national labor contracts with all three manufacturers at once, and very publicly, refusing to name one company as the negotiating lead, instead playing each car company and their offers off the others.”
What Fain and the Detroit carmakers decide will have a big impact in Indiana, which is part of the UAW’s Region 3, where membership peaked in the 1950s at 140,000. In 1982, Indiana’s membership in Region 3 of the UAW was 100,000. By the 1990s, membership in Region 3 had fallen to 85,000, and it faced the challenge of the continuing decline of U.S. automobile industry plants.
In the year before the Great Recession put Chrysler and GM on the brink of extinction in 2008, “Shawn was anti-ratification due to the agreement implementing tiers and cutting wages for workers in half,” the UAW website said. “Many times, at council meetings, he was ostracized for speaking up against the agreements as they didn’t serve the best interest of the Membership.”
Fain was asked on CNN earlier this week whether a strike at the Detroit automakers could damage the recovering U.S. economy. “In the last decade they made a quarter of a trillion dollars in profits,” Fain said. “In the last six months alone they made $25 billion in profits. In the last four years, the price of cars went up 30%. CEO pay went up 40%. No one said a word; no one had any complaints about that.
“Now, God forbid, workers actually ask for their fair share of equity in the fruits of the labor and the product they produce, and all of a sudden it’s the end of the world,” Fain said. “It’s not that we’re going to wreck the economy. We’re going to wreck their economy, the one that works for the billionaire class. It doesn’t work for the working class.”
Fain also isn’t reticent about wading into American politics. This comes as the House Republican Study Group formerly headed by U.S. Rep. Jim Banks advocated a shift from Republican advocacy of big business to that of blue-collar workers.
Asked on MSNBC whether he plans to endorse President Biden for reelection, Fain responded, “We’ll make that decision when the time is right. Our endorsements are going to be earned, not freely given.”
He then pivoted to “the other person we talked about, the other candidate,” meaning Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump. In 2020, Trump carried Howard County (home to GM and Stellantis plants in Kokomo) with 65% of the vote, to Biden’s 33%, up from 63% in 2016. In Allen County (GM at Fort Wayne), in 2020 it was Trump 55%-43% over Biden. In Lawrence County (GM at Bedford) Trump carried it with 74%. In Grant County (GM at Marion) Trump won with 68%.
“I’ll be real about that person,” Fain said of Trump. “I’ll never forget in the ’16 race when he spoke about workers in Michigan, union jobs in the Midwest, he said we need to do a rotation in this country. We need to move those jobs to other places that pay less money and those people will be begging for their jobs back. That’s not a person I want as my president. And then he made the comment recently telling people to stop paying their union dues,” Fain said. “That’s not someone who represents working-class people. He’s part of the billionaire class and we ought not to forget that.”
The Wall Street Journal observed on Tuesday: “Unions aren’t the force in the U.S. that they used to be. That doesn’t mean they can’t pack a punch.”
In the coming days, we’ll find out how hard that punch is.
-Brian Howey is senior writer and columnist for Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.