Shawn Fain Talks About Class War, Biden, and How to Eat an Elephant
"We're gonna fucking do this."
Since being elected president of the United Auto Workers last March—the crowning achievement of an internal democratic reform movement that has reenergized the union—Shawn Fain has been a busy man. He led an unprecedented strike against all of the Big Three auto makers at once, winning historic contracts that were just ratified this week. His plainspoken manner and “Eat The Rich” politics (and t-shirts) have already made him one of America’s most popular labor leaders, and a bit of a folk hero.
I spoke to him yesterday about his union, presidential politics, and what it will take for the labor movement to lead the working class to the promised land. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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You just ratified the contracts that you won in the auto strikes. Is there a particular part of the contracts that stands out to you as the most meaningful win?
Shawn Fain: There’s a lot that stands out to me after 29 years as a member of this union and watching this continually go backwards. Bringing Belvidere back to life, naturally is massive. Not just for future product, but for a battery plant. That community was written off for dead. That’s a massive win, and a huge boost to a town that was pretty much finished. I think protections that we put in like the right to strike over plant closures, it gives us a lot more ability to take the companies on if they do the things that they’ve been doing. You go to wages, the guaranteed wage increases, and the annual leave, which we haven’t seen in decades, and then between that and cost of living [increases], it’s 30-33% increases for the life of the agreement. There’s a lot of things I take away from this that are record setting.
All those things are great, but the best part of this, like I said when I campaigned: When you bargain good contracts and you set standards, people want to be a part of that. And we’re already seeing workers from different non-union plants reaching out to us, thousands of them, and seeing the companies give increases to those workers, which we’re calling the UAW bump.
In terms of organizing, the UAW has lost several big union drives at plants down south over the past decade or so. What’s going to make that different going forward?
Fain: We’ve completely revamped our organizing department strategy. I brought in a new person to lead it that’s had success organizing. We’re doing things a lot differently. Just like everything else we’re doing. We bargained differently, and we’re gonna organize differently.
One of your best organizing tools in my opinion is when you bargain good contracts. It gives people a reason to want to be a part of something. I always go back to my grandparents’ generation. They moved from the South to the North to get union factory jobs to survive, and it changed their life. And we’re back to making these life changing jobs now, when you hire into a Big Three plant. It wasn’t that way the last ten years.
Tesla is obviously the biggest organizing target for you, but there are plenty of other non-union auto companies too. Do you have a preference for what your next organizing target is?
Fain: We’re working through all that right now. We want to organize everybody, but we need to maximize our resources and give organizing drives everything we can. We don’t want to miss things because we spread ourselves too thin. We don’t want to miss things because we spread ourselves too thin. I think that’s been a big problem in the UAW in the past. We put people in organizing, they start a drive, and they got 17 drives going on, they got minimum staff, and you can’t be effective that way… the targets, I don’t care. We just want to grow and give workers their fair share.
When you won the Big Three contracts, you put out a public call for other unions to join you in lining up contract expiration dates for May Day 2028, setting up a possible general strike. What kind of response have you gotten from that?
Fain: There’s been other people talking about it. I leave that to them. No matter how we do it, no matter what we do, I think it’s a significant day, it’s a significant time. I think it would be a great thing to align our contracts so that we’re all taking action at the same time. Working class people have been left behind. And they’ve been left behind since the 80s when Reagan took over and went after PATCO and no one took action. It’s been a downhill spiral ever since. We’ve just watching this massive divide between the billionaire class and the corporate class, and then the working class. The only thing to equalize that and bring that back in check is organized labor. Working class people have to focus on the power that we have when we stand together, and the power we have is when we withhold our labor, nothing’s gonna move.
When you look at the big goals you have—class war, scaling up the labor movement as a whole beyond the bounds of the UAW—that’s going to mean organizing millions of workers. What is the plan to organize at that scale? And do you think there is such a plan?
Fain: I think it’s possible… people said we’d never get cost of living back. We did. We moved mountains during this bargaining, and it’s just another mountain to move, in my opinion. But it’s movable. We just have to believe we can do it. We can’t look at it as “oh my god, there’s millions of people, how are we gonna do this?” We have to look at it like, “there are millions of people, we’re gonna fucking do this, and here’s the mechanism.” It’s like how you eat an elephant: one bite at a time. We have to have that philosophy going into it—it is possible, and we can do it.
I can look at the AFL-CIO and see some unions, including yours, that really want to organize, and I can see others who don’t really care to invest in it that much. Is there a way for you to push your philosophy out more widely into those other unions?
Fain: If anyone in organized labor is in leadership and they haven’t been watching what’s going on in the last year, with the Teamsters, with us, with AFA over the years, with SAG-AFTRA— I mean, this is it. If you’ve got your head in the sand, shame on you. Our slate just unseated [in the 2023 UAW elections] a slate that’s been in power for longer than I’ve been alive. Complacency was the rule of the day for those people. Settling for less. It’s a new day in our union, and I just think we have to continue to build on that.
As you just mentioned, you’re sort of the shining example of what an internal union reform movement can accomplish. There are groups inside other big unions like the UFCW and IATSE who are trying to democratically reform their own unions, just like the UAW was. What advice would you give to them?
Fain: They have to not be discouraged. Hell, I can go back to 2007 when I was anti-ratification, when they implemented the second tier in the UAW. It’s frustrating because you get attacked, and it’s a tough thing to do… workers in unions have to realize the power they have. It’s easy to bash and beat up leadership, but when you figure out your core issues and what those values are, and you’re not gonna be moved off that, when you get people coming together on that, you get a coalition together, you can have a great impact.
Have you had any difficulties since taking over UAW, since the other faction is still in the union? Has that been tricky to navigate?
Fain: It’s not been a love fest by any means. Naturally, its our first democratic election. Democracy is a battle. It takes work. That was our first ever direct election, so there were hurt feelings and things like that… at the end of the day, people that don’t want to be a part of this change are gonna have to get on board or get the hell out of the way. I mean, that’s just it. They’re gonna get steamrolled.
When I took over, it was a very divided house. But through this campaign, and through this contract, this union’s more unified than it has been in my 29 years.
A number of UAW locals, along with UAW Regions 6 and 9A, and the UAW staff union have all put out public calls for a ceasefire between Israel and Palestine. Is that something you’ve thought about taking a position on for the UAW as a whole?
Fain: Not at this point. Our focus has been on bargaining, we just delivered for the membership. We’ve still got workers on strike. 9A and them wanted to take a position, and I’m not gonna silence people on that. They have an opinion. But our focus right now is organizing. We’ve got to seize the moment. This is our generation’s defining moment, so we’ve really got to focus on growing this union.
The AFL-CIO came out with a Biden endorsement real early, but UAW has held back from making an endorsement. What was your thought process there?
Fain: First off, when I got called by the AFL I was shocked. I told them, “Look, we’re a year and half out from the election. This is not the time for that.” There’s work to be done. The days of us being a rubber stamp for candidates are over. Every election, they come with their hands out, and want our boots on the ground. But between elections, the work that needs to be done doesn’t get done a lot of times. We expect results. We expect people to pick a side in this battle. When they side with us, they’ll get our endorsement.
We had some things we were challenging the White House on. When I took over as president, the EV battery industry was dead. It was a race to the bottom. It was low pay, dead end jobs—$16.50 an hour, topping out at $20 after seven years. That’s despicable. It’s sad that our leadership didn’t do a damn thing prior to me to stop that. So we approached the White House, we approached Congress, we told them where we stood on this, and we expect a change, especially given the fact that our taxpayer dollars are funding this. And I’m very proud that we’ve turned that around.
It seems like your strategy of not endorsing early has paid off, in the sense that the White House has done a lot of pro-UAW stuff since then.
Fain: Yeah. They’re listening, and they understand it.
To the extent that Biden has been a good, pro-labor president, at least relatively speaking, people are now expressing some trepidation that his policy towards Israel is dividing the Democratic Party and endangering his reelection prospects. Is that something that concerns you?
Fain: I believe that’s for the White House to answer. Our focus is more on our membership and growing this union.
Here’s the problem, and this is how the working class has went backwards for 40 years: we lose focus. And I’m not saying that these things aren’t important. There’s a lot of very important issues out there. But at the end of the day, you look at the two leading candidates for president right now. This president went and visited a picket line for the first time in history, and supported us with the EV transition and things like that, with a community that was written off for dead. The former president that’s a leading candidate held a union rally at a non-union business. And in 2019 when he was the sitting president, GM was on strike for almost two months and he never said a word about the workers, never went and visited the picket line. In 2015 he was saying we need to do a rotation in this country, and rotate good paying jobs somewhere else where they pay less, and have people begging for their jobs back for nothing. And in 2008 he was blaming workers for what was wrong with the recession. Workers have to vote their paychecks, they have to vote their livelihoods. That’s, to me, what this comes down to. We have to stay centered on that issue. Letting all these other issues divide us—that’s been the plot of the wealthy class, the billionaire class, for the last 40 years, and it’s worked masterfully. They divide the hell out of the workers and they vote on a million issues, but the one issue that truly matters to them is being able to afford to live.
I have to ask, since you were there at the Senate subcommittee hearing where Oklahoma Senator Markwayne Mullin challenged Sean O’Brien to a fight, what did you think when that happened?
Fain: There’s two things out of that. One thing’s truly sad—on a meeting that was meant to talk about positive things, it was pretty obvious that Markwayne Mullin came in with just one agenda, and that was to disrupt it and sidetrack it… AFA president [Sara] Nelson previous to that was talking about how working class people expect us to come together and work together and figure out ways to address the needs of humanity. And then five minutes later you have a sitting US Senator stand up and challenge a guy to a cage fight. Complete stupidity.
Where I come from, you don’t talk about a fight. If you want to fight somebody you walk up and punch them. You don’t talk about, sitting behind a desk and threaten them. You just do it. I had to stop from laughing, honestly.
Do you have a Thanksgiving message for the workers of America?
Fain: I’m thankful we have unions. And we’re gonna grow this.
One nice thing about the UAW is that they organize auto workers but they also organize grad student workers and everything in between. The New York public defense lawyers I wrote about just the other day are UAW members! If you’re interested in organizing your workplace with UAW, you can contact them here. If they aren’t the right fit, you can get in touch with another organizer by contacting EWOC here. Why not organize a dang union today?
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