Shawn Fain was sworn in Sunday as the United Auto Workers new president, and the first elected directly by the union’s active and retired members after a lengthy vote count, less than 24 hours before the union delegates were scheduled to meet in Detroit to discuss strategy and objectives for the next critical round of bargaining with Detroit’s three automakers.
Fain, a veteran member of the UAW staff and former local union official at Chrysler plants in Kokomo, Indiana, stepped forward last summer to challenge the UAW’s old guard and its sitting president, Ray Curry, in a historic election. The vote broke the iron grip on the union’s internal politics by the so-called “Administration Caucus,” which held power for more than 70 years.
Fain ultimately defeated Curry by fewer than 500 votes out of nearly 140,000 — less than 7% of the membership — turned in and counted by the outside monitor, appointed by federal judge in the wake of devastating scandal.
Historic shift inside a storied union
Harley Shaiken, a labor expert from the University of California, said in a telephone interview, said the victory of Fain and his supporters throughout was “truly historic.”
“In a very profound way, he has shaped the debate and the direction of the union,” Shaiken said. “He is also bringing in a new energy and new people. This is a moment when new ideas and new approaches are needed,” said Shaiken, noting Fain’s campaign built a successful coalition, which included highly educated graduate students from the East and West coasts as well a broad cross section of blue-collar workers from places such as Kokomo and Flint, Michigan.
Curry, who was appointed UAW president in July 2021 and fought hard to keep the union presidency, utilized the levers of incumbency to stay in office during an election campaign set up by a referendum among union members, which led to sweeping changes, including direct election of top officers, in the UAW Constitution.
He also stressed his broad experience as a negotiator and promised to press ahead with reforms set in motion by union’s 2020 settlement with the Department of Justice of racketeering lawsuit.
Try as he might through two rounds of voting, Curry, who earned a college degree and an MBA while working as an assembler at a Daimler Truck plant in North Carolina, could not overcome the taint of the scandal and federal investigation, which haunted the union prior to the election that gave Fain and other reformers control of the union.
Scandal haunted election campaign
The far-reaching scandal sent a dozen union officials, including two past presidents, and two vice presidents on charges ranging from mail fraud, embezzlement of union funds to violations of federal labor law. A third UAW vice president died before federal authorities could charge him with taking a bribe from Fiat Chrysler. It also devasted the union’s reputation and undermined organizing efforts at companies such as Nissan.
As the scandal unfolded, Curry had risen to regional director and then Secretary-Treasurer, the union’s second highest office in 2018 on a slate headed by Gary Jones, who pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges in 2020.
Curry was vetted and approved to run for office by the court-appointed monitor but could never get past the pictures of Jones, now a convicted felon, holding up his hand in triumph at the UAW’s Constitutional Convention in 2018.
Shaiken noted after narrowly losing a very close election, Curry stepped aside to ensure Fain was in charge at the union’s bargaining convention.
On his campaign website, however, Curry said he planned to pursue a series of protests over the conduct of runoff election decided in Fain’s favor.
“The campaign and individual members have previously filed allegations of election violations and they will be investigated per the rules. This is important to ensure that the current and future elections are conducted in a manner that respects the law, UAW constitution and election rules established by the Monitor,” the Curry Solidarity Team noted in a statement.
Earlier this month, Curry’s team did ask for a completely new election. The request was rejected by the Monitor. Curry also could appeal to the U.S. Department of Labor, which has the authority to order a new election for union offices.
Tough approach to bargaining promised
During his campaign, Fain, who speaks with a distinctive Hoosier twang, ran on a platform distilled to the slogan, “No more corruption, no more tiers and no more concessions.” He wanted the union to carve out an independent and more militant path in bargaining, particularly with Detroit’s automakers tht are caught up in a historic transformation to electric vehicles.
Eliminating the multi-tiered wage structure used in auto plants is a top priority. “I think we should go back to where new employees get top rate after 90 days,” Fain said during a telephone interview when he started his run for the UAW presidency last year.
Shaiken said the call for the “end of tiers” recalls the traditional UAW battle cry of “equal pay for equal work.” It also critical the UAW’s appeal for solidarity, which is weakened when workers are paid differently.
At the same time union members, particularly younger members, want more paid time off as well as wage increases and a measure of cost-of-living protection.
After he was declared the winner, Fain said, “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. 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.”
All three of Detroit’s automakers, who employ roughly one third of the UAW’s active membership, were quick to congratulate Fain and say they were looking forward to working with him on mutual challenges.