By Joseph White
DETROIT (Reuters) – With just over 30 hours to go before a strike deadline he set, United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain on Wednesday rolled out the latest, unprecedented twist in his unorthodox campaign to win a historic contract for nearly 150,000 workers at the Detroit Three automakers.
For the first time in the UAW’s history, the union could order members at all three of Detroit’s automakers — General Motors, Ford and Stellantis NV — to walk off the job starting after their contracts expire at 11:59 p.m. ET on Thursday, Fain said in a Facebook video address Wednesday evening.
The Friday walkout would start with targeted strikes designed to “create confusion,” among automakers, Fain said, leaving the door open for last-minute agreements.
A quoter of the Bible and Nation of Islam civil rights leader Malcolm X, a gleeful social media star and a master of charts and financial talk, Fain has remade the strategy of the union he leads, choosing a bolder, much riskier path than his predecessors.
Never before has the UAW tried rolling strikes at all three companies to win a contract, and never has it demanded as much.
Referring to Biblical scripture, Fain asked union members: “Are you willing to have faith and move that mountain? Nobody’s coming to save us.”
The rolling strike strategy is just the latest way in which Fain has broken with decades of UAW tradition since he won office by a narrow margin in a first-ever direct election earlier this year.
Fain has used charts and graphs to dissect wage and benefit offers from the automakers during his video talks – details his predecessors kept behind closed doors in the final hours of bargaining.
He has rebutted automakers’ concerns about labor costs by pointing out that they have poured billions into share buybacks to benefit investors.
“If they’ve got money for Wall Street they sure as hell have money for the workers making the product,” he said.
With the clock ticking down, Fain is running what amounts to a public auction among the companies to push each one to top the other to avoid a costly walkout. Prior UAW presidents picked just one to set a pattern for the other two.
Fain has made creative use of social media, appearances on network and cable news programs and alliances with high-profile progressive politicians such as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, to reframe the UAW’s contract bargaining as a battle to re-set the balance of power between workers and global corporations.
“We fight for the good of the entire working class and the poor,” he said.
Over and over, the hard-nosed union chief has told UAW members at the Detroit Three that they can reverse 20 years of wage and retiree benefit concessions, stop further plant closures and end a seniority-based, tiered compensation system that pays new hires as much as 44% less than veteran workers.
Achieving any one of those goals in one bargaining round would be a significant achievement. UAW-Detroit Three contracts have tended toward incremental change, with worker gains offset by provisions that allowed the companies to drive costs down with automation and process efficiency.
The 54-year-old union veteran, who carries his UAW-member grandfather’s pay stubs in his wallet, has escalated his rhetoric – and his stage craft – since bargaining kicked off in July.
In one of his early Facebook Live videos, he delivered his message wearing a black T-shirt with a quotation from U.S. civil rights leader Malcolm X on the back.
On Wednesday, he told UAW members they must fight for a better contract “by any means necessary” – one of Malcolm X’s most quoted phrases.
Moments later, Fain quoted from the Christian Bible – which he said he reads daily.
Fain has slammed the automakers’ “inadequate” wage offers with a trash can labeled “Big Three Proposals” perched on a shelf behind him.
LONG-TERM TECHNOLOGY THREATS
Now comes the crucial test for Fain’s strategy as the current contracts with the Detroit Three expire.
In 2019, the union launched a strike against GM when the company refused to agree to a contract by the deadline. That six-week strike cost GM $3.6 billion and stressed the finances of UAW members.
The union has since beefed up its strike fund to $825 million. But the automakers have billions in cash to withstand job actions.
Other unions, including Teamsters at delivery giant United Parcel Service and writers and actors in Hollywood, have also been emboldened, and some including UPS have won substantial raises. The actors and writers have been on strike for more than 100 days.
Like the Hollywood unions, the UAW members at the Detroit Three face threats from new technology that a richer contract will not resolve. Executives of the Detroit Three have said the UAW’s demands will make them uncompetitive as the shift to EVs offsets the profits delivered by the combustion trucks UAW members build.
Fain dismisses those warnings.
“They pretend the sky will fall if we get our fair share of the quarter of a trillion dollars the Big Three have made over the past decade,” Fain said. “It’s the billionaire economy – that’s what they are worried about.”
(Reporting by Joe White and Ben Klayman in Detroit; Additional reporting by Bianca Flowers in Chicago and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Diane Craft)