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UAW president Shawn Fain on union victories in tentative contracts

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain raises his fist at a rally in Detroit on Sept. 15, 2023. (Paul Sancya/AP)
United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain raises his fist at a rally in Detroit on Sept. 15, 2023. (Paul Sancya/AP)

United Auto Workers got pay raises and inflation adjustments in new tentative contracts with Detroit’s Big Three automakers.

Union members engaged in six weeks of strikes over wage disputes, job security and concerns over electric vehicle production. Though the tentative contracts don’t fix nearly every problem in the industry, according to UAW president Shawn Fain, they’re still victories for the union.

“I’m of the philosophy and this union grew out of a great depression and people saw a better way of life. They saw a union that set the standard,” Fain says. “This contract gets back to setting the standard.”

4 questions with Shawn Fain

How did companies respond to the right to strike over potential plant closures being included in contracts?

“They definitely pushed back on it. I mean, obviously, if you watch what’s happened over the scope of the last 20 years, I mean, the Big Three closed 65 plants.

“Job security was one of our main issues coming into this round of bargaining because we’ve watched the decimation of our workers at the expense of a race to the bottom. And we had to get something put in place to help stop that.”

As far as the workers, do you expect the UAW members to approve this draft contract? Will it be a close vote, do you think?

“I leave that to the membership. Look, I believe this is our most lucrative contract in our history. And you know, we didn’t fix everything. I mean, we were trying to fix things that have been going on for 20-plus years. And it’s hard to fix all those things in one contract.”

I want to ask about the electric vehicle part of the auto economy, the UAW, of course, won some concessions in that space, one battery joint venture, for instance, will be folded into the General Motors contract. But in the modern supply chain, there are so many companies in the battery part of the supply chain that are disconnected from the Detroit three automakers or simply separate companies. Doesn’t that limit what you can do here?

“The corporate class always tries to put the fear out there that, you know, ‘Oh this is going to make people uncompetitive.’ And all that to me is code for race to the bottom.

“We’ve got to turn that narrative around because for too long, our leadership’s been complacent and they’ve been allowing the companies to drive that narrative and using that as an excuse to not bargain good contracts.

“That’s our job as organized laborers: To raise the standard and bring people to our level, not to keep driving a race to the bottom.”

Electric vehicles are, of course, a big focus of the Biden administration. The president joined UAW workers on the picket line toward the end of the strike. Will the UAW endorse the president?

“I mean, as we’ve said from day one, our endorsements are going to be earned. In the president’s race right now, they are the two leading candidates. There’s two distinct choices. We’ve seen a sitting president for the first time in the U.S. history join striking workers on a picket line. That’s a big deal. That doesn’t go unnoticed.

“And the other candidate, you know, he had a rally at a non-union business that had nothing to do with our membership or union workers. He has a track record that in my opinion, doesn’t really coincide with what working class people need.

“But we’ll leave that up to the membership. We’ll cross that bridge once we get through this process and we’ll make endorsements at the right time.”

You have said your next aspiration is to try to unionize workers at plants in the American South, including Toyota. These efforts have failed in the past. These are in states without a history of unionized industrial workers. For you, what will be different about working in those states with those workers?

“Well, I think number one, as I’ve said, bargaining and organizing go hand in hand. But when you bargain good contracts, you create momentum and people want to be a part of that.

“We have literally had throughout this contract campaign, throughout this bargaining process, daily, hundreds of workers reaching out to us wanting to join the UAW. So we’ve got a lot of leads and we’re going to focus on that. And we’ve revamped our organizing department, and we have a new plan we’re putting in place and we’re going to go to work.”

For customers, they see labor costs now going up at carmakers, the Big Three, and for those who wonder if sticker prices will rise, if they wonder if American carmakers can stay price competitive in a global economy, what do you say to them?

“I say that, first off, I’m gonna call this what it is. It’s corporate greed, and it’s consumer price gouging. Before we bargained these contracts, the last four years, the price of automobiles in this country went up 30 to 35%+, on average. We went backwards in wages. The reality is they don’t have to raise the price of vehicles one penny, and they will still make billions of dollars.

Samantha Raphelson produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Raphelson also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.