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We Sat Down With The First Democratically Elected President of UAW

In a remarkable upset, United Auto Workers have elected reformer Shawn Fain as their new president. More Perfect Union founder Faiz Shakir sat down with him for an exclusive interview.

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Faiz Shakir: It sounds like you’re telling me you’re prepared to make people mad.

Shawn Fain: Well, these corporations have an obligation to the members, to the workers. I mean, these workers are the reason these profits happen.

Faiz Shakir: I came out here to Macomb County, Michigan to meet with the new leader of one of the most storied and influential unions in America, the United Auto Workers. His name is Shawn Fain. Shawn is an even-keeled kind of guy, very calm, but underneath that exterior is somebody who’s itching for a fight with corporate America.

Shawn Fain: Oh, you bet. I have two speeds. I have this speed and I have a different speed, but there’s a time and a place for those things.

This is Shawn’s first interview since becoming president of the UAW. Fain won an historic victory over the incumbent president.

Faiz Shakir: Here you are the first democratically elected president of the UAW. Tell me what that feels like. How do you treat the honor of being chosen by your fellow members?

Shawn Fain: It’s such an honor. I think of so many people that laid the groundwork for this longer than I’ve been alive. I was always an advocate for one member, one vote. It’s just, honestly, most of us, although we fought for it, we pushed for it. It just wasn’t a reality it seemed, because there was such a control of how this institution ran. 

Faiz Shakir: When you think about that, a majority of members voted for change in the leadership of the UAW, they wanted you. What do you think the message is that they’re trying to send?

Shawn Fain: I think the message is just that they’re fed up with the status quo. You know, you have higher ed workers that you know are sleeping in cars. You have, uh, independent parts and suppliers. They live paycheck-to-paycheck. Well over half of our workforce in the Big Three does not have a pension, does not have post-retirement healthcare, and it takes some years to get to full pay. 

You look at situations in the Big Three where you have language that says they, you know, it’s moratoriums on plant closings and idlings. And yet they’re still closing plants and idling plants, and there’s been no action from the leadership. And now you look at the shift to EV and again, uh, the companies jumped the gun. They’ve formed joint ventures, and, and we really haven’t, the leadership hasn’t responded to those things. So I really believe it’s just the membership’s fed up. It’s a mandate from them that they expect change, they expect us to put the membership first and they expect us to deliver.

Faiz Shakir: You’re gonna have some of these corporations, I assume, caterpillars and the Big Three, a lot of the electric vehicle industry wanting federal support. How do you think about ensuring that workers get a fair shake out of this federal money that’s coming in?

Shawn Fain: We’re, we’re facing a huge shift right now with the transition to EV and, and knowing where that’s gonna go. And there’s a lot of work in front of us on that front also, because you look at what’s going on right now, my hometown, again, Kokomo, Indiana, they, you know, Chrysler announced a new battery plant there, a joint venture, but we have no rights to that work. Our members, if—if we get away from transmissions, the 8,000 transmission workers in Kokomo are not gonna have a job. If you look at Ford, the two EV joint ventures, uh, in Kentucky and Tennessee, 11 billion dollars in investment—and right now we have no piece of that. So, you know, we really have to get to work at securing that work. And making it work that’s worthwhile. It needs to be under our master agreements so that it pays a good wage and a good standard of living. And also that we secure futures for our current workers and future workers, the ones that are coming in.

Faiz Shakir: These are purpose-driven jobs in life. There’s a pride of wearing a UAW and pullover and, and, and feeling like I go to a plant and I do something that’s productive for the nation.

Shawn Fain: You know, you need to talk about pride in work. I mean, I look back at, at my grandfather, you know, he saved every check stub he ever earned at Chrysler from the first day he [was] hired in 1937 until he retired, he saved every check stub. He was proud of that job. Those people damn near starved to death during a depression, they were proud of what they’d accomplished. They went from destitution to being able to retire, and they lived the American dream. 

But, you know, the American dream has been dead for years. I mean, it’s not there anymore. I mean, so we, and the unions are responsible to make that happen. A lot of the non-union facilities right now, and if they look at us and look at themselves, they hire in as temp workers. We hire in as temp workers that take sometimes years to get to full pay. It takes us years to get to full pay. 

In the 1930s, our top leaders were talking about a 32-hour work week in 2019. I was taken out of negotiations because I wouldn’t accept a seven-day, 12-hour schedule. So we have to get back to where we set the standard and give people a reason to wanna be a part of something bigger. I tell people we have to get back to our roots, but we have to be better than we were even then because the world’s very different now. I mean, work is very different. The UAW is very different. You know, back at my grandparents day, it was the big three. Now we represent, you know, a very diverse group of people: gaming Higher Ed, IPS, nurses. I mean, we have, you know, a plethora of workers everywhere. But with that, we also have a lot more power. We have to utilize those things and come together and set the standard and elevate the working class as a whole.

Faiz Shakir: The fight of Starbucks workers, the fight of Amazon workers. They’re your, they’re your fights too.

Shawn Fain: Definitely. I mean, we, we have to all, uh, come together and we have to think big. We have to think on a bigger scale. We have to think global. We have to get with workers all over this world, and we have to unite if we’re gonna win this fight, that’s what we have to do. Um, we can’t sit back with our head in the sand and say, okay, we’re here in America and that’s all we care about.

Faiz Shakir: You want some votes from your membership? Now there’s gonna be some politicians out there who are gonna be winding court, working class votes. Hopefully they will. What do you learn and what’s your message to people saying, if you want to talk to working class voters, here’s what they need to hear from you?

Shawn Fain: Well, they need to get on board with the working class voters. I mean, if, if you want, if you want our endorsement, if you want our support, the proof is in your actions, not in your words. We have to stand together as labor. We have to come together and politicians need to understand. If they want our vote, then, then it’s time to put up. We’re always there for ’em. With boots on the ground every election cycle, we expect our issues to be resolved also and our issues to be, uh, dealt with.

Faiz Shakir: What’s your message to corporate America? 

Shawn Fain: My message to corporate America is they better get ready over a decade. These companies have been flushed with profits and they’ve enjoyed the successes of that. They’ve expanded, but the members have actually regressed and it’s unacceptable. And it’s time that they put the membership first. And if they don’t, then, then we’re gonna have to do what we have to do.

Faiz Shakir: Nice to meet you, sir. Best of luck in this job.

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