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How 500 votes made Shawn Fain one of America’s most important people

<i>Paul Sancya/AP</i><br/>United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain
Paul Sancya/AP
United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain

By Chris Isidore, CNN

New York (CNN) — Shawn Fain is one of the most important people in the US economy today. A year ago, almost no one knew who he was.

The new president of the United Auto Workers union, sworn into office less than six months ago, could lead strikes by 145,000 members of his union starting this Friday at General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, the company that builds cars for the US market under the Jeep, Ram, Dodge and Chrysler names.

The UAW’s contracts at the Big Three automakers expire at 11:59 pm on Thursday, and Fain has said union members could walk out immediately at any company without a tentative contract negotiated by then. A strike of that many workers could have repercussions far beyond Detroit, through the American economy and even into the 2024 presidential election.

With glasses and a receding hair line, Fain, 54, doesn’t necessarily look like a rabble rouser. But he is not afraid of strong rhetoric, even by the standards of labor leaders, attacking the “billionaire class” and “corporate greed.”

His videos for members have featured him throwing automaker contract offers into the garbage can calling them “trash” and “insulting.”

“This trashcan is overflowing with the bulls— that the Big Three continue to peddle,” he said on one of the videos. “We’re all fed up with living in a world that values profits over people. We’re all fed up with seeing the rich get richer while the rest of us just continue to scrape by. We’re all fed up with corporate greed and together we’re going to fight like hell to change it. The race to the bottom ends September 14.”

The automakers have expressed outrage about some of Fain’s tactics. Last month, Stellantis said it was “shocked” when Fain announced that the union was filing unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing GM and Stellantis of not bargaining in good faith. GM called the charges an “insult.”

Surprise winner

These are not Fain’s first set of negotiations. He’s been on negotiating committees before. But it’s the first time he’s led the union.

At the end of last year, he was an underdog candidate from the UAW staff running against the long-entrenched but scandal-ridden caucus that had led the union for decades. Two of the previous three presidents had gone to prison due to the scandal, as did some executives at Fiat Chrysler who had bribed them.

Incumbent President Ray Curry was not implicated. But the scandal, including misappropriation of union funds and taking money from company officials at Chrysler, forced the union to agree to a government monitor to oversee its operations. And as part of that, the union agreed to give the rank-and-file membership a direct vote to pick a president, rather than having the leader chosen at union conventions by elected officials.

Fain comes from Kokomo, Indiana, a blue collar city in central Indiana that is surrounded by farm land. Multiple plants there produce much of the engines and transmissions that go into Stellantis cars and trucks. Three of his four grandparents worked at auto plants.

Fain was hired at one of the what was then a Chrysler plant as an electrician in 1994. He served in a variety of union offices at the local level and became a national negotiator during the 2009 bankruptcy at Chrysler and again during contract negotiations in 2011. In 2012, he went on staff at the UAW.

His run for office last year was his first on the national level. Fain finished second in the first vote, with 38%, but only 600 votes behind Curry, or less than 1%. Since Curry had failed to get a majority, a runoff vote was held in the spring. This time Fain edged out Curry by less than 500 votes.

“There was a lot of shock when he won,” said Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Buffalo. Even with the close result in the initial round of voting, Fain caught the ruling caucus of the union “flat-footed,” said Wheaton.

“I don’t think they were as in tune with membership and how frustrated people were with both the companies and the union,” Wheaton said.

Campaign led to ambitious bargaining goals

Given his upstart status and the close election, it’s not a surprise he’s taken a particularly aggressive stance in negotiations, according to some experts.

“The fact that Shawn Fain was the first popularly elected president is significant,” said Patrick Anderson, CEO of Anderson Economic Group, a Michigan research firm. “He had campaigned for his job, and he only won narrowly. He feels he has to deliver and he has constituents keeping track of what he’s doing.”

Fain campaigned with the slogan, “No concessions, no corruption, no tiers,” the final promise referring to workers hired at the three automakers since 2007 who had a different pay and benefit package than more senior workers.

It takes longer for the lower-tier workers to reach the top levels of the pay scale, for example. And the benefits are very different.

The pre-2007 workers get a traditional pension plan and retiree health care coverage; the post-2007 workers get a 401(k) retirement plan and a limited amount of money, which they can use to buy supplemental insurance.

So far none of the company offers have shown any indication of accepting the pension or retiree health care demands.

The union’s initial wage demands were also substantial: an immediate 20% pay raise and four more 5% raises over the four-year life of the contract that all together would raise wages by 46%.

The UAW doesn’t appear to have come down much from there. Bloomberg reported Monday that its latest demand is for raises totaling 36%. A person familiar with the offer who spoke on background confirmed that number, although the union is not commenting publicly.

The union is also demanding a return of cost-of-living adjustments to their pay scale to protect members from inflation.

With less than three days to go until a strike deadline, the automakers have not commenting directly about Fain when asked about him as a negotiating partner, either declining to comment or offering only general comments about their hopes in negotiations. All say they still hope to reach an agreements before the deadline that will satisfy the union and the needs of the company and thus avoid a strike.

“We are the largest employer of UAW workers and we have gone well beyond the letter of the contract to improve the lives of our employees in the plants,” said Ford spokeman Mark Truby. “The facts can get lost in the fog of rhetoric, but we remain committed to reaching an agreement that’s good for employees and supports Ford’s growth strategy.”

Rhetoric brings charges of ‘class warfare’

Fain has raised other ideas that aren’t in the union’s official list of demands. One getting a lot of attention is for a 32-hour, four-day work week with no drop in pay.

And his rhetoric has brought charges that he is engaged in “class warfare” from CNBC’s Jim Cramer. While he denies that charge, he’s frequently repeated that he was accused of that. And he’s not shy about criticizing what he sees as the “billionaire class.”

Asked about worries that a strike will hurt the economy and drive up car prices for average Americans, he told CNN’s Jake Tapper Monday that it is only the rich who need worry.

“It’s not [that] we’ll wreck the economy. We’ll wreck their economy. The economy that only works for the billionaire class and not the working class,” he said.

And that was mild compared to some of his earlier statements about the rich. In a video he filmed for members at the end of August, he said that anytime someone becomes a billionaire, it represents failure of US economic policy.

“Billionaires in my opinion don’t have a right to exist,” he said. “The very existence of billionaires shows us that we have an economy that is working for the benefit of the few, and not the many,” he said. “It feels like we’ve gone so far backwards that we have to fight just to have the 40-hour work week back. Why is that? So another a–hole can make enough money to shoot himself to the moon?”

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