Michigan awaits U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday, who announced Friday that he would join picket lines in the historic strike against Detroit's Big Three. Biden comes after the public invitation of the president of the United Auto Workers (UAW), Shawn Fain, an electrician with 29 years of unionism behind him who is revolutionizing the manual of demands of his organization. Fain, 55, is the first leader in the union's 88-year history to be elected by a democratic vote of its members.
Until last March's elections, which were resolved in a second round by less than 500 votes among the nearly 140,000 members who participated, the union's cadres were elected by delegates in a procedure of inbred cronyism that led to a stage of widespread corruption. It was precisely an agreement with the Department of Justice, after the filing of charges against officials of the organization, that established that direct election. That gave a chance to Fain, who had stood up to management.
Three of Fain's four grandparents were affiliated with the UAW. One of them began working at Chrysler in 1937, the year the union emerged with the Sit Down strikes, to which the current leader has made a historical nod calling for the Stand Up mobilization. The trade unionist says he always carries one of his grandfather's payrolls to remember where he comes from. He joined the UAW when he began working in 1994 as an electrician at the Chrysler foundry plant in his hometown of Kokomo, Indiana.
He immediately stood out as a union leader in his plant of origin, of which he became head of the committee. In 2007, when the motor companies were going through a crisis and the unions agreed to make concessions, Shawn opposed the ratification of the collective agreement that established a double wage scale that halved the wages of new workers. "Double pay scale has no place in this union. If they vote for this agreement, they better pick up a gun and shoot themselves in the head," he said bluntly. One of the key demands of the current strike is, precisely, to end this double scale (or at least, to bring the conditions of the new hires closer to those of the oldest). He also opposed the stoppage and closure of factories, and other agreements that, in his opinion, did not serve the interests of the members.
He also participated in the negotiations to bring Chrysler out of bankruptcy, in which the union achieved a shareholding package, later acquired by Fiat (Stellantis is the result of the merger of Fiat Chrysler with the PSA-Peugeot Citroën group). After holding various positions in the structure of the union, he challenged in the elections the president in office, Ray Curry, with a campaign in which he was more combative, although his tone is calm and his speech, direct, but serene. His two big promises were to be tougher on business and clean up the union, which had seen two of his predecessors jailed.
After being elected, he launched a message of unity through Twitter. "For too long, this union has been divided. We have been divided by corruption and selfish leadership at the top. The UAW was once the model of a clean, progressive, member-led union, but in recent decades we have strayed far off course. The leaders of the UAW, the people elected to lead and serve this great union, have accepted bribes, stolen dues, and betrayed the trust of members. This ends here," he said.
In the strategy to mobilize affiliates, he pointed to the record profits of the Big Three and the multimillion-dollar salaries of their managers. "We are not the problem. Corporate greed is the problem," he said. Breaking with the tradition of singling out one of the companies as a strike target and then demanding that the other two match their concessions, Fain decided to attack all three at once, but selectively and gradually. He called strikes at just three plants, one at General Motors, one at Ford and one at Stellantis. Protected by a regulation that does not require advance notice, it was proposed to keep companies "on tenterhooks". In addition, after a week of negotiations, it punished GM and Stellantis with the strike in 38 more centers, while saving Ford from burning for having shown a greater willingness to negotiate.
Workers surveyed last week at several plants support that strategy. "He knows what he's doing, for me it's the first strike," said a GM employee in Ypsilanti, Michigan. "It's a strategy and it seems to work," said another in Toledo, Ohio. Fain is not particularly charismatic, but he conveys security and confidence. Use social media to communicate with affiliates. Last Friday he was wearing a camouflage shirt when he invited Biden to join the picket line. The president accepted the challenge. Today he travels to Michigan.
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