The United Auto Workers will, for the first time, directly elect the next union president under an agreement with the federal government to settle a corruption probe that produced more than a dozen convictions.
The most serious challenger to incumbent president Ray Curry is Shawn Fain, an employee at the UAW headquarters who oversees a skills training center near Detroit.
In a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg Law, Fain discussed his plans to clean up the union and take a firmer stance in negotiations with US automakers next year. He sharply criticized union leaders’ handling of the transition to electric vehicles, but was circumspect about sharing his own plans.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
For those who don’t know you, give us a sense of your background.
I’ve been in the union 28 years. I was hired at the Chrysler Kokomo, Ind., casting plant in 1994. I’m an electrician actually by trade, and started out in the lower levels of the union, bylaws and education chair. Then I ran for committee and got elected five times.
After the bankruptcy negotiations I was offered a position on international staff, so that’s when I moved to Detroit back in 2012. I left a lifetime of work and family and friendships back home when I made the decision to come on international staff, and I really felt like to affect change at the higher level you had to be there.
What’s motivating you to run for president, and why should members pick you over Curry?
Watching how things transpired over the years, I was frustrated many times. I felt that some of our leadership was just way too close to the company and just not really fighting for the membership—sitting back as plants were being closed, plants were being spun off, and no action being taken.
To me, we’re at a crossroads. We have to get leaders in there who are going to take action and be proactive and not wait for things to happen then react to it. To me, our leadership has been way too complacent—more reactive than proactive.
As we’re transitioning to the EV work, we can’t just sit back and wait. We say we’re out in front of this, but I don’t see it. When the companies are announcing joint ventures and opening new battery plants and investing tens of billions of dollars in the non-union south—a lot of these plants aren’t UAW, they’re not coming under our master agreements. Leadership should be taking action on that. We’re falling further and further behind.
You’ve talked about the union being too top-down and people being ostracized for disagreeing with leadership. Do you feel like you’ve paid a price for disagreeing with leadership?
I was anti-ratification even in 2007 when they instituted the two-tier initiative. I was very outspoken to the national media, and, you know, I faced a lot of blowback back then.
Since I’ve announced my candidacy, it’s been very different for me. I’ve been threatened by HR a couple of times for comments I’ve made on social media —they came after me at the latest Stellantis council meeting we had based off comments I’ve made on social media. It was pretty obvious who they were directing those comments to. So yeah, it’s definitely not an easy road.
The bottom line is I’m not doing anything outside of what I’ve always done, and that’s being an outspoken member. Sometimes, when you put membership over an international executive board that believes they come first, that brings repercussions. But I knew that going in.
If you were president right now, what would you be doing differently? How would you be, in your words, more proactive as it relates to the EV transition specifically?
I don’t want to get into saying exactly some things that I would do because I don’t want to tell corporations, you know, everything I would be doing. It’s at the point that when they announce joint venture battery plants, there’s no discussion with the UAW in that at all. This is our future. We have a lot of workers that stand to lose everything if we don’t lock that work down.
You can see the snowball effect where all of the Big Three have joint ventures now. Looking forward, they announced over $11 billion in joint venture battery plants in Kentucky and Tennessee—and none of those are UAW at this point. They announced a battery plant, Stellantis did, in Kokomo, my hometown. But as it stands we have nothing to do with it.
To me, the international executive board isn’t even on the same page among each other. You’ve got GM’s leadership agreeing to subsystem agreements with a few of the plants they’ve got. Then Ford and Stellantis are saying they want master agreements, but no action has been taken to lock it down.
Look at the 2019 bargaining. GM closed several plants—Lordstown, Ohio assembly was closed, the Warren, Mich., powertrain plant was shut down. Stellantis has Belvidere Assembly Plant that’s bleeding product, and there have been several products awarded elsewhere, outside the US.
This is when these companies are making billions and billions of profits. So it’s not like it’s bad times.
Let’s talk about two-tier wages. The UAW says that system was scrapped—at least the vast majority of it was scrapped—in the 2015 and 2019 contracts, but you talk about it like it’s still very much a live issue.
It’s sad to me that they claim two-tier was eliminated. It’s not been eliminated. They kicked the can down the road. In 2019, rather than end the tiered agreements, they agreed to move all the people that were currently working to full pay throughout the lifetime of that agreement. But at the end of the day, anyone who was hired in after the agreement has to go through an eight-year progression.
We’re asking them to pay dues and become members, but then we tell them on the flip side we can’t represent you. How do you bring people on board and get them to believe in the union when their first experience is, “Hey, we want your money but we can’t help you with anything”?
Where were you while the corruption scandal was unfolding?
I was at the Stellantis training center as an international representative. I was basically overseeing all of the skills training programs.
That training center was ground zero for corruption, as you’ve said. Did you have any sense at the time something nefarious was going on?
I always felt like leadership was way too close to the company, but really the only people who could know what was really happening were the people who had to sign off on expenditures. I wasn’t in that type of role then.
I’ve been working with the federal government, with teams of attorneys—everything—trying to clean up and reorganize.
Looking back, should you have realized what was happening?
Should I have known? No. I mean, there was no way to know. In the role that I’m in now I would have known because I have to sign off on expenditures and things like that. The only people who can know are the people in control of all that.
If I saw somebody with a purse or nice shoes, I would have assumed they bought that with their own money.
How do you restore confidence in the union going forward?
That’s why I’m running. We’ve got to get new leadership in there.
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