UAW President Shawn Fain Is Showing How to Build Working-Class Struggle

Shawn Fain, the firebrand president of the UAW, is modeling exactly the kind of labor leader we need right now: one who boldly names the billionaire class as the enemy — and galvanizes workers themselves to fight back.

Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers (UAW), center, walks with demonstrators during a UAW practice picket outside the Stellantis Mack Assembly Plant in Detroit, Michigan, on August 23, 2023. (Jeff Kowalsky / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

He has the unassuming look and demeanor of someone we all know. A friendly neighbor you would run into at little league games, Sunday church services, or small-town fairs. While United Auto Workers (UAW) president Shawn Fain doesn’t profile as a firebrand, the last few months have shown that beneath the calm exterior lies a radical union leader with grand ambitions for the US working class.

The UAW strike at the Big Three (Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis) auto manufacturers began on September 15. From the beginning of this contract campaign Fain has displayed a bold, innovative, and effective approach to his relatively new role as union leader. By clearly naming the enemy, defining the stakes, and putting his faith in the membership, Fain has rallied the American public to the cause of the autoworkers and forced both political parties to pick a side.

Over the last few years, too often public attention and the media cycle has been dominated by petty culture wars and partisan bickering. But the UAW strike has brought class politics back to the fore and refocused anger where it should be: on the multibillion dollar corporations that have ruined the economy for working people. Shawn Fain is the union leader America needs right now.

It wasn’t likely that Fain would’ve ended up in this position. He rose up through the ranks of the union, starting as an electrician at a Chrysler plant in Kokomo, Indiana, before becoming a committeeperson in Local 1166. Despite being part of the union hierarchy, he always displayed an independent streak.

In the wake of the 2007 recession, auto companies received a federal bailout and demanded big concessions from their workers, including the introduction of tiered wages. Fain stood strong and led his local to vote against ratifying the contract, remarking, “Two-tier wages have no place in this union. . . . If you vote for this agreement, you might as well get a gun and shoot yourself in the head.”

But Fain could not have risen to leadership without the backing of a rank-and-file reform caucus and a crisis that bred opportunity. In 2018 the Justice Department began investigating corruption in the UAW and eventually unearthed a massive scandal involving the embezzlement of more than $5 million for luxury expenses like hotels, golf trips, cigars, and liquor.

As the investigations played out, reform activists formed Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) and built a base. UAW members voted in favor of direct one-member-one-vote elections for leadership instead of the old convention delegate system. In the fall 2022 elections five UAWD candidates won seats on the Executive Board, while the presidential race with Fain went to a runoff. Finally, in March 2023, Fain won the UAW presidency by a slim margin.

Fain had no time to bask in this victory, however, as negotiations with the Big Three automakers began only a few months later. He came right out of the gates with a strong signal to members that this time things would be done differently.

At the April UAW convention, Fain declared, “Now we’re here to come together to ready ourselves for the war against our only one and only true enemy, multibillion-dollar corporations and employers that refuse to give our members their fair share.” Instead of beginning negotiations with the decades-long tradition of the handshake with auto company CEOs, he instead went around the country shaking the hands of members and getting them fired up about taking on the Big Three.

His soaring rhetoric about corporate power and working-class resistance, often tinged with biblical references, is one of Fain’s most distinguishing features as a leader. At every opportunity he uses his bully pulpit to frame the union’s fight in terms that the entire working class can identify with.

As labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein recently wrote in Jacobin:

President Shawn Fain’s rhetoric resembles that of both the legendary Walter Reuther, a social democrat who presided over a collective bargaining regime that doubled the real incomes of US autoworkers, and Bernie Sanders, whose denunciation of the billionaire class has animated a larger slice of the working class than any tribune since Eugene V. Debs.

Throughout the summer, Fain used Facebook live streams to get his message to UAW members across the country. During his September 13 live stream he declared, “People accuse us of waging class warfare. There’s been class warfare going on in this country for the last forty years. The billionaire class has been taking everything and leaving everybody else to fight for the scraps.”

Weaving in his religious faith, he continued, “In the kingdom of God, no one hoards all the wealth while everyone else suffers and starves. In the kingdom of God, no one puts themselves in a position of total domination over the entire community. . . . That world is not the kingdom of God; that world is hell.”

He ended this livestream, like many others, with an almost missionary appeal to his members about the cause they are fighting for:

We fight not only for the good of our union or for the good of our members and our families. We fight for the good of the entire working class. . . . I believe that great things are possible, but only if we are able to shed our fear. Only if we stop letting the billionaire class define what is possible and what is realistic.

Fain has been just as skilled in talking to the media and conveying the union’s message to the broader public. Similar to Sanders, he stays relentlessly on message about the immense inequality between auto CEOs and workers.

On the eve of the strike, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked if he was fearful of wrecking the economy. In what became a viral response, Fain shot back, “It’s not that we’re gonna wreck the economy, we’re gonna wreck their economy, the economy that only works for the billionaire class. It doesn’t work for the working class.” Citing statistics to back up his worldview, he continued:

In the last decade these companies have made a quarter of a trillion dollars in profit. In the last six months alone they’ve made $21 billion in profit. In the last four years the price of cars went up 30 percent, CEO pay went up 40 percent. No one said a word, no one had any complaints about that.

The strategy of the strike itself also represents a bold departure from the past. Usually the UAW would only target one company to strike and get the other two companies to conform to that negotiated agreement. But in the union’s current “stand-up strike” strategy, certain plants from all three companies are going out on strike. More locations are being added as negotiations continue, which helps to keep the companies off guard, escalate pressure, and preserve the union’s strike fund.

Clearly Fain’s leadership is already proving effective at galvanizing public support. As the strike began, a Gallup poll showed a whopping 75 percent of Americans stood with the UAW against the auto bosses. The strike has forced its way into the presidential race, leading Joe Biden to take the historic step of joining a UAW picket line and voicing support for their demands. Despite attacking the union, Donald Trump has scheduled a rally targeting (nonunion) auto workers.

Reflecting broader working-class frustration with the two major political parties, Fain has refused to offer blind support to politicians. The UAW is withholding an endorsement of Joe Biden due to his current policy of subsidizing low-wage, nonunion electric-vehicle manufacturers. At the same time, Fain has made it clear that the union has nothing in common with billionaire candidates like Donald Trump.

We can view Shawn Fain as part of a rising new wave of militant, charismatic union leaders who are being propelled forward by a restive working class. One can see some parallels between Fain and Teamsters general president Sean O’Brien.

O’Brien broke with international union leadership over contract concessions and joined forces with the reform organization Teamsters for a Democratic Union to win the presidency. By mobilizing the membership for a credible strike threat, UPS was brought to its knees and the Teamsters won a historic contract. It seems clear that Fain and the UAW were inspired by the Teamsters fight at UPS, and even adopted similar tactics like the practice picket.

Fain’s boldness is already showing results at the bargaining table as well. Ford and General Motors have agreed to eliminate a lower wage tier. In addition, Ford has also been forced to reinstate the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) given up in 2009, grant the right to strike over plant closures, and expand profit sharing to temps.

The times cry out for more relatable, national-level tribunes of working-class struggle. Shawn Fain is an autoworker to his core, and loves to show it by carrying around a pay stub from his grandfather who went to work for Chrysler in 1937. He is plainspoken but powerful, linking the fight of his union with that of all working people.

By daring to take on corporate giants and make his case to the American public, Fain and the UAW are cutting through the culture-war noise to the core issues of inequality in our society. Leaders like this are only representatives of a broader movement for working-class power. Here’s to many more Shawn Fains.