The United Auto Workers announced a tentative agreement with General Motors on Monday, the union's third agreement in recent days that likely means the end of the six-week strike against Detroit’s Big 3 automakers. Their win came after an aggressive campaign from a new union chief that built on a string of recent labor victories.
Led by new president Shawn Fain, the UAW used what was called a “rolling strike” in which workers at different factories walked off the job at different times versus all the workers at the same time. The tentative contracts with Ford, GM and Stellantis that still need to be formally ratified include 25% pay increases over the course of the deal, cost-of-living adjustments and putting battery plant employees under the UAW agreement, a major step as automakers continue the transition to electric vehicles.
Who is Shawn Fain?
Fain is the first UAW president directly elected by the membership and the head of an insurgent bloc; his election followed years of corruption by union leadership, including two former presidents embezzling millions. An electrician from Kokomo, Ind., Fain provided constant video updates to his membership via social media, breaking from previous approaches where the work was done behind closed doors. He was combative in his approach to automaker executives, pillorying their salaries while wearing an “EAT THE RICH” T-shirt and expressing a belief that billionaires shouldn’t exist.
"They look at me and they see some redneck from Indiana," Fain said in a speech earlier this month. "They look at you and see somebody they would never have over for dinner or let ride on their yacht or let fly on their private jet. They think they know us. But us autoworkers know better."
Fain also mixes in Scripture with his speeches, telling the Atlantic that his favorite verse was Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 and his favorite line from it was: “A cord of three strands is not easily broken.” Fain says that the passage “speaks about what life’s about: standing together and helping one another and loving one another.”
The UAW benefited from public support, with an August Gallup poll finding that 75% of Americans sided with the UAW in the labor dispute, while only 19% sided with the Big 3. They also had the backing of the White House, as President Biden became the first sitting president to ever join a picket line when he visited strikers in September. It was a move criticized by former President Obama’s auto industry task force head Steven Rattner, who called it “outrageous,” which shows some of the shift in the Democratic Party’s approach toward labor.
“The fact of the matter is that you guys, the UAW, you saved the automobile industry back in 2008 ... you made a lot of sacrifices,” Biden said while wearing a UAW hat. “You gave up a lot. And the companies were in trouble. Now they’re doing incredibly well and guess what? You should be doing incredibly well.”
Building on the win
The UAW victory follows a recent run of labor successes. In August, UPS averted what would have been a historically large strike by more than 300,000 drivers and warehouse employees represented by the Teamsters union, agreeing to higher wages and protections for workers like air-conditioning in delivery trucks. In September, the Writers Guild of America ended five months of striking with a deal that achieved nearly all of the union’s goals and was ratified by 99% of membership.
Those victories come in a climate with pro-union sentiment across the nation. The August Gallup poll found 67% support for unions overall, down from a high of 71% last year and still above the recent average. Fain is hoping for continued cross-union solidarity and is calling on other organizations to align their contract expirations with the UAW’s new deals, which are set to end on April 30, 2028, and would allow for a strike to begin on May Day, also celebrated as International Workers' Day.
"May Day was born out of the intense struggle by workers in the United States to win an eight-hour day. That's a struggle that is just as relevant today as it was in 1889,” Fain said at a speech Sunday night in Detroit, adding, “We invite unions around the country to align your contract expirations with our own so that together we can begin to flex our collective muscles.”
"If we are going to truly take on the billionaire class and rebuild the economy so that it starts to work for the benefit of the many and not the few, then it's important that we not only strike, but that we strike together.”