Shawn Fain on How the UAW Whipped the Big Three

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain discusses wins and eyes expansion to nonunion automakers.

United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain speaks before President Joe Biden at an event with UAW autoworkers at the Community Building Complex of Boone County, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023, in Belvidere, Ill. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain speaks before President Joe Biden at an event with UAW autoworkers on Nov. 9, 2023, in Belvidere, Ill. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

In late October, after a six-week strike, the United Auto Workers reached a historic contract deal with the big three Detroit automakers. This week, as membership votes to approve the contract are underway, President Joe Biden rallied with the UAW president in Illinois to celebrate the tentative agreement between the union and the automakers. This week on Deconstructed, UAW President Shawn Fain joins Ryan Grim to discuss the victory. Fain was elected president of the union earlier this year by the union membership, in the first UAW election in which members could directly vote for the union president. Fain discusses the recent win, the union election that led to his victory, corruption inside union ranks, and the broader labor reform movement for direct democracy within unions.

Ryan Grim: I’m Ryan Grim. Welcome to Deconstructed.

My guest on today’s show is the president of the United Auto Workers, Shawn Fain. He joined us just ahead of his rally with President Biden Thursday, and he was having some technical difficulties, so the audio of our conversation isn’t as pristine as you’ve come to expect from this august podcast, but I think it was a fascinating conversation, nonetheless. Here it is.

I’m Ryan Grim. Welcome to Deconstructed. My guest today is the president of the United Auto Workers, Shawn Fain.

Shawn, thank you so much for joining me.

Shawn Fain: Oh, thank you. It’s great to be here.

RG: So, you’re on your way later today to an event with President Biden in Illinois to celebrate the contracts, your wins against the big three. I’m curious, back in September, when he joined the picket line — the first president to do so in American history — did that have any effect on the talks at the bargaining table? Like, what was it like the next time that you walked into that room?

SF: I think at the bargaining table, the main point of control was the membership, the striking workers. But it definitely, obviously, when the President of the United States visits a picket line for the first time in history, it’s a big deal. And, obviously, I believe it did send a message, that the president was standing with workers, as any politician should.

That’s what this nation’s about, that’s what this nation was founded upon, the principles and the government of the people, and it wasn’t a government of corporations. Other politicians believe that a corporation should have the same rights as a human being, which is insane.

I just believe it was a great display of support, and it showed a great disparity between the two leading candidates right now. You know, the other candidate held a rally at a non-union business that had nothing to do with labor or our membership.

And, obviously, in 2019, when the former person was president, he could have visited a picket line then. He chose not to. So, I think it just shows two distinct differences there.

RG: This was also a really big win for the union reform movement, and I wanted to ask you a little bit about that movement. When did you first start to identify yourself as part of the union reform or union democracy movement?

SF: Well, before there was even a movement. I mean, the current movement. With our union, with UAWD [Unite All Workers for Democracy], long before that, I was always an outspoken advocate for working class issues. I was an anti-ratification in 2007 when they implemented tiers.

But, obviously, that was the struggle, was there were a lot of individuals. I mean, the UAW back in the 80s had the New Directions movement led by Jerry Tucker and others, and that was the first time someone was able to be elected. But, obviously, the administration caucus tied that all up, and was able to minimize that. That was the power they had, that’s what we were fighting against.

And so, from that point forward, there’s been a lot of us [who are] reform-minded, but getting a way to make that happen was another story. And an avenue to make that happen was another story, coming together to make it happen.

TDU was a great role model for … I think when UAWD was founded, was formed, I think they looked at TDU a lot in their example. And UAWD was able to push the referendum and get one member, one vote, and that’s why we’re all sitting here. I mean, like me, sitting here right now as president is due to the reform-minded groups like UAWD and TDU that helped lay the groundwork. And even New Directions, they laid the groundwork, and set the table for those of us who ran in opposition of a slate that’s been in place for over eight years, that’s what enabled us to win this.

RG: It sort of felt like, from the outside, that those reform movements were kind of in a perpetual state of laying the groundwork. There was always something getting in the way of them getting over the hump, and actually electing a president, like they finally did this year. 

SF: A lot of opposition … It’s all about power and control. That’s what it was all about with the former administration caucus, just as it is with the wealthy class. It’s all about power and control.

And so, people would always run against the caucus, but they had control of everything, they had a death grip on the convention. So they were able to push people to get elected locally and get their commitment to support the caucus at any cost, and that’s what they did.

So, getting a direct election was the key, and that’s where I say UAWD played the biggest part in this. If they wouldn’t have put the referendum and pushed the one member, one vote initiative, it never would have happened. And that was the catalyst for everything that’s happening right now. 

RG: Did the 2007 contract in the midst of the financial crisis radicalize a lot of members, do you think? How did that play into this? 

SF: Well, first, I think members were radicalized before that, but I think, naturally, the economic recession and what happened out of that, the sacrifices our members made … It was one thing to make sacrifices, but they became, basically, the standard mode of operation for eternity. It was pitched to everyone as, we’re going to do this temporarily to let the companies get their feet back on the ground, and then it became just a way of life.

As the companies kept making more and more money, and workers weren’t seeing anything getting better, obviously it drove workers to not be happy with what’s going on, not to accept the status quo, which led us to where we are now. Workers were fed up and wanted to go in a different direction, get new leadership in there, [they were] tired of the same lip service, the same story. So, obviously, I think that led to us having great success in the election.

RG: What do you think it was about the kind of structure of the union that enabled the former corrupt leadership to stay in power, despite the rank and file being… How aware was the rank and file that there was a lot of corruption at the top, and why was it necessary for the Justice Department to come in?

SF: Well, let’s be real. I mean, I suspected things back in the early 2000s, a lot of us did, but suspecting it and proving it are two different things.

RG: Right.

SF: And I’ll tell you this. It really, for me, I’ll never forget, and I believe it was 2017 when the government first announced their first indictments. As much as I wanted to celebrate and say, “hell yes, finally,” it was a gut punch, too. Because the big concern was, I just remember thinking to myself, this union’s never going to be the same again.

And, as long as we didn’t change, it wasn’t going to get any better, and that that was the concern, was knowing the system of how it was stacked up and set up, there was not actually a concern that it would ever change if we kept the conventional system of elections. That’s why direct elections of our leadership is so imperative; it gives the membership the right to pick their leaders. Because the system before was just a patron system. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. If you’re my buddy, I’ll take care of you. If you go against me, I’ll end your career. 

RG: And so, you were sworn in then, in March, 2023, because you had to go through the runoff. And then the standup strike starts in September — that’s an incredibly short amount of time to get ready — and you’re also coming in with a lot of, I would assume, remnants of the old guard, the people that you’ve been criticizing for years, the people that you ran against, still there.

So, how did you, in that short amount of time, get your staff ready for the war, and what kind of obstacles were there in place, set up by the last [regime]?

SF: It was simple. We walked in, and everybody was just embracing us. I was sworn in on the Sunday, end of March, and that Monday through Wednesday, we were running our bargaining convention. I had no press, no agenda, no nothing when I showed up on Monday for the convention. I had no idea of what was even on anything.

Plus, I had a divided convention where, obviously a lot of… Because the administration caucus always got their people to run and get elected to those positions, so it was very heavily in favor of the caucus. So, it was a very cold start. That’s right, that’s democracy in action.

I had to get a team put in place, and that’s why I brought in some people like Ben Dictor, Chris Brooks, Jonah Furman, Donna Lee. And they weren’t UAW members, but they had a lot of success working with labor and grilling unions. Brian Shepherd’s another one for organizing, having organized success, and winning good contracts.

I just felt like we were so entrenched in a way of doing things in the UAW. And I saw that, even me coming up with 29 years. I mean, it’s ingrained in you, in how we do things. So, I thought it was imperative to bring in an outside set of eyes for people to look at things with a fresh perspective, and give us insight. And then utilize the people we have, the UAW people at that level, and then come up with a holistic plan for how we want to approach this.

We ran our first ever contract campaign in very short order. I mean, it would have been nice to have a year to run a campaign like that, but I got to say: get elected at the end of March to put a team together over the next month and a half, and still be fighting about some of that into June, because some people still wanted to argue about bringing in other people. And, once we got over that hurdle, we were already launching a contract campaign with our organizing teams and education teams, getting out the regions and the locals, and we’ve never seen this before.

So, our members at first were kind of skeptical. “Well, what are we doing? We don’t do this.” But once they caught on, once locals started having rallies, the momentum, just the energy from our members, it was just crazy. You know, doing the members’ handshake at the opening of bargaining, instead of shaking the company’s hands. Like those plants, when those people came out, they were just energized and ready to fight. We saw it everywhere we went.

So, I think the contract campaign really got the membership focused on our issues and what we were going after, and in the event we had to take action, why? Because the last strike in 2019, GM took the whole company out, but you ask ten different people why they’re out there, and you get ten different reasons. I mean, no one really had [an idea]. There was no plan, there was no messaging.

We’ve really done a hell of a lot of work in a short amount of time just to get into bargaining. The contract campaign, I think, set everything up well. And then, obviously, our leadership’s never done mass communication like we had. We’ve been transparent through the whole process. I held weekly Facebook Lives giving the membership updates, and that communication with the members goes a long way.

I just think it all tied together, and we couldn’t have asked, really … I’m still trying to get my head around this. Basically, from the day I was sworn in seven months later, we had all three of the big three TAs, and we had a massive victory.

Just to see our membership starting out on day one, with that convention being very divided, but at this point our membership and our leadership is unified like I’ve never seen in my 29 years. And that’s an awesome thing to look at in seven months.

RG: And one thing you did this time that didn’t really happen in the past was throw some really hard punches, and also frame this in real class-war terms. And I’m wondering how the executives at the bargaining table responded to getting called “plutocrats” so often; I heard there were even some tears in the room.

What was that about? Did this catch them off guard?

SF: I think it completely caught them off guard, because they’re so used to a company union. I mean, let’s be real. We had a company union, they were in bed with management, it was pretty apparent by all the failures over the years. Of not fighting, and not standing up for the right things, and it became very evident during this round of bargaining how little they had done. Because we worked very hard, but you have to call it like it is.

I’m very direct with people. During bankruptcy — I was a negotiator during bankruptcy — and the workers were blamed for everything that was wrong with these companies, and that was complete bullshit, and they know it. I mean, we didn’t make decisions to buy other companies, and then sell them for pennies on the dollars, and all the bad decisions these companies make. But when it came time to pay the piper, they put all the blame on our pay and our wages and our benefits. And that’s just not true.

And so, it was important for us to revamp our communications team and get messaging early out there, to tell people the truth, to put the facts out there. These companies made a quarter of a trillion dollars in the last decade. They made billions in the first six months of this year, CEOs got 40 percent pay increases, the price of cars went up 30, 35 percent in the last four years. Not because of our wages; we went backwards.

So, it was, as I said, corporate greed, consumer price gouging. We need to put the facts out there, and our leadership in the past did a horrible job. They never communicated in media, they would tell us, “No one talks to media but the president or the VPs, and no one would talk.” So, the companies are always putting the narrative out there, and we’re not responding so it was important to us to get the facts out there, to get the public…

At the end of the day, that’s why this campaign has resonated across every sector, across working class people from all walks of life. It doesn’t matter if we’re fast food workers or what job they do. Our campaign has resonated with working class people.

Everywhere we go now, when people see this UAW logo, they point [and say],“Hey, we love what you’re doing. Thank you for what you’re doing.” You know, I’ve never seen that energy in my 29 years as a member.

RG: And how did that affect the talks? So, you’re at the bargaining table, and you know that you’ve got this energy out on social media, among the public, on the ground with people. You’ve got the members galvanized.

SF: Just the power of the membership alone. I mean, the public narrative is one thing, but them seeing our membership engaged, them seeing our members… When we would call a plant out on strike, members whose plants didn’t get called would be disappointed. To see that energy, and to see that their workers are fed up, and they are dying, they want to strike. It gave us great power.

And that was the beauty of the standup strike, and how we went about it was, even though we were striking some plants, just the threat of those who weren’t on strike yet going on strike, it gave us immense power at the bargaining table. 

RG: For people who didn’t follow the standup strike closely, where did the idea come from, to hit targeted spots, rather than a full walkout?

SF: I wanted to do things different from day one, and that was, honestly, one of the biggest things we were looking at. The union always picked a target, a company would drag things out to the week before the deadline, then they’d get serious with the target company, and then the other two would just sit back and wait.

Like, in the GM situation in ‘19, it went 40 days on strike by the time they settled. Then Chrysler and Ford had to get in the bargaining, and it dragged on and on. I’ve never agreed with that philosophy. I believe September 14th, as we said over and over, is a deadline, not a reference point. If the contracts aren’t done by then, then we take action, and we were very clear about that from the onset.

Obviously, I don’t think they took it seriously, I think they’re just used to a complacent leadership that always folds it in. But, as we sat down planning out what we were going to do, we knew how much we had in our strike fund, we knew that the companies were expecting us to probably do an all-out strike because of what we put out there. And we knew they had probably mapped out how long that money would last.

And so, we were, basically, we were trying to be good stewards of our strike fund, of our membership’s money, but also come up with a plan that would get maximum results as efficiently as possible. We kicked around ideas. Chris Brooks was really, in my opinion, somewhat the architect of the standup strike. Jonah Furman came up with the name “standup strike.” But we walked through several scenarios of what we could do, or how we could go about striking, and that’s the thing we came up with.

And, even that, as we planned it, we mapped out every plant by every company. You know, what they produce, how it affected plants down the chain. We had everything mapped out: high-level, mid-level, low-level. Everything. And then it gave us great power with all that background information to really strategically decide how we wanted to go about this, and what lever wanted to pull at what time. And it also gave us a lot of flexibility to adjust that, depending on how things went at the bargaining table. So, if things were going in the wrong direction, we could amp it up.

It just gave us so much flexibility and leverage. Like I said, it all plays in together. Getting the membership on board with the contract campaign, and getting the energy going around the campaign, getting people rallied around the issues. I’ve never seen it in my lifetime in the UAW, and I’m just proud of the work that everyone … It’s a team of people who put this all together, did all this work, and I think it paid great dividends for the membership. And that’s what the membership deserves.

RG: You’ve been in a lot of negotiations, and I’m curious what the difference was being involved at a high level, and being the president. How long did it take you to realize like, “Oh, I’m the one that’s making the final calls here?”

SF: I knew that going in, but that’s a reason why I ran. Because I watched for years, as a negotiator, as a staff person, as an assistant director, as an AA. I would be in there fighting and arguing, and then end up like … In 2019, I basically got told to stay out of the skilled trade part of the bargaining, because we weren’t going to roll over on a seven-day, 12-hour schedule, and other things. And then the vice president, the president’s office came in, and what happened? They agreed to the seven-day schedule, and that’s the unfortunate part of this.

And that’s why I strove to be different. All the things I didn’t like that went on over my previous board national agreements I was involved in, I had my ideas of what I thought needed to change, and how we approach bargaining. We needed to involve the committees more, so they knew every step of the way, where we were, what was going on. Rather than the president’s office just walking in at the end and going to a closed-door room with the vice president and the company leadership, and cutting the deal, and coming out and saying, you have a contract. That’s how it used to happen. 

RG: How’s it going with Toyota, and Honda, and other non-union companies? Are you hearing from workers there?

SF: Oh yeah. We’ve been getting hundreds daily. I mean, hundreds of hits from all over the non-union sector from workers, they’re inquiring about joining the union. You know, I’ve said it over and over: you bargain great contracts, that leads to organizing success. People want to be a part of that. And it goes back to our early roots as a union.

When the UAW was founded, my grandparents’ generation, they left poverty and destitution in the South, they moved North, they got jobs at UAW factories, and it changed their lives. It was a life-changing job. We haven’t been that in the last couple decades.

This contract gets us back to setting the standard again, and that’s why it’s so important. To get back to setting the standard, to lifting the standard for everybody else, and then just building on that.

RG: There’s another contract fight that was happening simultaneously: Mack Trucks. That one was run in a bit less aggressive, kind of more traditional fashion. It sounds like the members are not terribly happy with that contract.

What does that say about the effort to reform the entire union, and where do you think the Mack Truck fight is going?

SF: So, that’s the issue, that’s the challenge. We’re trying to change this union, and we knew the biggest set of bargaining we had coming up was big three, that was not the most focused. So, we tried to pilot everything there.

Now, we want to try to carry that into every sector, of how we go about bargaining. It’s just, unfortunately, having the resources and the processes in place to do that, they just weren’t there yet.

Since we’ve had issues at Mack, we’ve sent resources over there to try to get that turned around. There were a lot of local issues playing into that contract being voted down, also. There was a mix of things that went into that, but we’re trying to get this standardized among every contract and everything we’re doing.

But I go back to this. We’ve been in place for six to seven months now. We really just felt like we had to focus getting some things worked out in one area, get a great contract, and then build off that, and that’s what we’re going to do. I mean, I’d love to change everything overnight and have everything in place, but it’s just not realistic.

We’re doing the best we can now to take that to other areas, other sectors, and map out contracts.

RG: Now that you’ve had this huge win, and you really captured the imagination of a lot of the public, I’m curious if you’re getting people that are pushing you and saying, you know what? What you need to do next is run for president; not of the UAW, but of the United States. Anybody nudging you in that direction? 

SF: There’s been a lot of comments like that but, I mean, look. I’m president of the UAW, this is what I love. I ran for this to deal with years of frustration for the members, for myself. To make this union something we can all be proud of, that’s my focus, and that’s where I’m at. I don’t have any ambition to be a politician around that stuff.

This is what I love, and we’ve got a lot of work to do ahead of us. We’re just getting started.

RG: Shawn Fain, thank you so much for joining me.

SF: Thank you.

RG: That was Shawn Fain, and that’s our show. And also, a quick update that I just received as we ended the interview with Shawn Fain.

You may recall the name Oren Miller from our episode earlier… Was it last year? About the county commissioner in The Villages who was jailed by a Ron DeSantis-backed prosecutor for what we considered to be, at the time, bogus charges of perjury. Go back and check that episode out, but he was basically railroaded over his opposition to a property tax increase that was there just to benefit the developer that owns The Villages.

We just got word that his conviction has been overturned by an appeals court.

RG: How you doing Angie?

Angie Fox: I’m doing great, you have no idea.

RG: So, what happened?

AF: Just got a call from the attorney telling us, not guilty. It’s been overturned completely.

RG: Amazing.

AF: Now, where we go from here, I don’t know. Right now we’re just trying to settle down from the news before we decide what we do.

RG: Did they issue an actual ruling, or was it just a stamped not guilty?

AF: As soon as I get home and get on my computer, I’ll send you exactly what we’ve got. But he says it’s been overturned. Not guilty.

RG: Amazing.

AF: He read it. Very short. Got a call from our attorney that other people knew even before he did. But everybody was watching.

Male Voice in background: She’s got a copy of it already. She’s already working on it.

RG: Well, congratulations.

Angie: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you. I’m afraid it’s not over yet, but we’ll see what happens. I mean, he lost his job, he lost his pay, he lost everything. They took his job away, he had to go to jail, he had to pay for all the expenses and everything.

RG: Well, enjoy an apple fritter for me.

AF: I will. Talk to you later, Ryan.

RG: See you.

I thought Deconstructed listeners would particularly be interested in this, because many of you funded, the legal defense fund after our episode that enabled him to appeal his conviction. And so, Oren Miller personally wanted to pass on a thank you to Intercept readers and Deconstructed listeners for kicking in to that GoFundMe, without which he would not have been able to appeal this, and he would still be a convicted felon. Instead, his name has been cleared, and it actually clears the way for him to run for office again.

Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show is mixed by William Stanton. Legal review by David Bralow. Leonardo Faierman transcribed this episode. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s Editor-in-Chief. And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. Bureau Chief of The Intercept.

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