Shawn Fain Is Channeling the Best of the UAW’s Past

The ongoing UAW strike, led by president Shawn Fain, is a marked departure from the union’s recent history. In many ways Fain is channeling early UAW leader Walter Reuther — before the union and Reuther himself downsized their ambitions.

United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain at a rally for striking workers at UAW Local 551 on October 7, 2023, in Chicago. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Amid a year of attention-grabbing strikes, few have grabbed more attention than the United Auto Workers (UAW)’s ongoing strike against the Big Three automakers, launched on September 14. The union’s novel “stand-up strike” strategy, which involves targeted strikes that progressively ratchet up pressure on the companies, has kept the companies guessing while galvanizing public support. As auto company executives have found themselves in the awkward position of defending lavish stock buybacks and exorbitant pay for themselves, available polling suggests that the public supports the strikers by more than two to one.

With this week’s surprise announcement calling out an additional eighty-seven thousand workers at the Ford Kentucky Truck Plant, roughly one-quarter of the 150,000 autoworkers under the Big Three contracts are now on strike. While a comprehensive deal remains far off, the UAW’s targeted approach has already won major gains at all three automakers, including eliminating some tiers, reinstating cost-of-living (COLA) wage adjustments, winning the right to strike over plant closures, and, perhaps most impressive, bringing future electric vehicle (EV) production at General Motors (GM) under the master agreement.

The union’s approach to bargaining and striking is a sharp departure from the UAW of recent decades. Instead of allowing the companies to dictate concessions while keeping members in the dark during negotiations, the UAW leadership has staked out what it has described as an audacious, ambitious agenda that seeks to reclaim the union’s historic role as the standard-setter for the entire working class. It has actively involved members in the contract campaign and strike, and has encouraged and embraced member creativity on the picket line and in the plants, as autoworkers yet to be called out on strike have independently refused voluntary overtime and engaged in “work-to-rule” campaigns to slow down production.

The leadership has also been much more open about the bargaining process, with regular updates on social media, via texts and emails, on the picket lines, and in the plants about progress in negotiations (or the lack thereof).

Much of what’s making this strike so different from recent UAW strikes has to do with the approach taken by recently elected union president Shawn Fain, whose leadership was made possible by a successful reform effort with UAW and a broader climate of increased labor militancy. In many ways, Fain’s bold approach hearkens back to that of early UAW leader Walter Reuther — before the union, and Reuther himself, downsized their ambitions.

A Public Approach

Fain’s weekly live streams, which get tens of thousands of views and have become the new “must-see TV” for UAW members and supporters alike, are emblematic of the union’s new tack. In a ritual that evokes reality television, Fain sits at his desk in his sparse office, surrounded by picket signs, looking straight at the camera. He often takes the opportunity to make bold fashion statements, with recent sartorial picks including a white camo-print, quarter-zip golf shirt, a crisp red zip-up hoodie given to Fain by the Italian Federation of Metalworkers (FIOM), and a custom-made “Eat the Rich” T-shirt — perfectly timed for the day after the New York Times published a Fain profile under the headline “New U.A.W. Chief Has a Nonnegotiable Demand: Eat the Rich.”

Starting off by greeting his UAW family, Fain always begins not with an update on Big Three auto negotiations, but by talking about strikes and organizing victories elsewhere in the union, making explicit the links between these different struggles. He then moves to discussing the auto talks, laying out where the companies have moved on union proposals and where they have fallen short. The updates are both informational and motivational, as Fain frames the negotiations as part of a broader fight for social and economic justice, and chastises company executives for their greed and the disrespect they have shown toward workers.

Then comes the moment everyone has tuned in to watch: the announcement of who will be called on to “stand up” and join the strike that week. Fain has mixed it up week to week, sometimes calling out workers at all three companies, sometimes sparing a company that has made bargaining progress that week, sometimes standing pat. Most recent, with the Ford Kentucky Truck Plant, Fain did not wait for his weekly update to escalate the strike, instead staging a Wednesday walkout. The following Friday, Fain announced that the UAW would no longer schedule potential strike escalations to coincide with the Friday live streams.

Fain’s public and unpredictable approach has left company executives apoplectic, with CEOs issuing statements criticizing Fain for engaging in “theatrics” and holding an agreement hostage. But even as they complain, the companies have been forced to move. The Friday live streams have provided a deadline that has concentrated the minds of company negotiators. Three times already, the live stream has been delayed not due to technical difficulties, but due to company negotiators reaching out with last-minute concessions in the hopes that their company will be spared from strike escalation that week.

Back to the Future?

Some aspects of the UAW’s approach, like its expanded social media presence, are decidedly new. And some, like the president’s redefinition of picket-line chic with his live stream outfits, are unique to Fain himself. But as many observers have noted, the current strike is drawing heavily on the earlier history of the union, before it fell victim to corruption and concessionary bargaining.

Tactically, the stand-up strike of 2023 deliberately invokes the sit-down strike of 1936–1937, which first established the UAW. But at a deeper level, the current strike marks a return to the UAW as a force fighting for the entire working class and a broader social vision.

In this, some note that Fain seems to be channeling elements of the last UAW president to gain such national prominence: Walter Reuther. It was Reuther who, first as UAW’s GM director and then as president, built up the pattern agreements in auto that set the standard for working-class jobs in the postwar period. He also sought to tie those contracts to a broader social democratic vision in which unions like the UAW would play a much larger role in shaping social, political, and economic life.

Reuther fell short on that count, resulting in a bargaining regime with the Big Three that led to real improvements for autoworkers while also setting the stage for the crises the union faces today. With the current strike, Shawn Fain is taking cues from the old Reuther playbook — but this time fighting for a different outcome.

We can see this if we turn back the clock to the GM negotiations of 1945. In that round of bargaining, Reuther was fighting for a broader vision that included having the union exert control over company investment decisions. He was not only negotiating over autoworkers’ wages and benefits, but also over questions such as how much cars would cost. The union’s main demand, framed under the slogan of “Purchasing Power for Prosperity,” was a 30 percent raise for autoworkers without increased car prices — an explicit attempt to divert company profits from capital to labor.

Like Fain today, Reuther viewed the 1945 negotiations as political, linking autoworker demands to efforts to “get a more realistic distribution of America’s wealth,” as he put it. He demanded that GM “open its books” to demonstrate that it could afford the increase. Beyond wages, Reuther also tied the negotiations to a wider vision of social democracy, which included fighting for public social benefits like national health care, pensions, improved vacations and leave policies for all workers, expanded unemployment benefits, and more.

Because he was waging a broader fight and making it political, Reuther also made the 1945 negotiations into a more public confrontation. He opened 1945 bargaining not only to members but to the press, literally bringing a stenographer into talks so that bargaining exchanges could be reprinted in the media.

Predictably, GM wanted none of Reuther’s broad vision, leading to a 113-day strike lasting into 1946 that completely shut down the company. It was a hard-fought battle, and part of the largest strike wave in US history, in which fully 11 percent of the nonfarm workforce went on strike in a single year.

The resulting settlement was a win for the UAW in many ways. But it was, historian and Reuther biographer Nelson Lichtenstein put it, a “pyrrhic victory,” as the union won wage increases but failed in its efforts to exert control over price setting. Rampant postwar inflation largely wiped out the substantial raises won in negotiations.

The strike settlement also marked the beginning of a political backlash, leading to Republican takeover of Congress in 1946 and culminating in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which severely hamstrung labor. At the same time, social democratic legislation like the Wagner-Murray-Dingell bill, which aimed to establish a national health care system, failed.

The Two Souls of Walter Reuther

This meant that Reuther found himself in a much different position when bargaining with GM resumed in 1950. He still had the broader social vision that animated him in 1945, but its wings were clipped. And that fundamentally reshaped the UAW’s scope and style of bargaining. Unable to achieve those bigger goals, Reuther settled for winning what essentially amounted to a private welfare state for autoworkers. And unable to exert control over management’s investment and production decisions, he settled for negotiating the terms of autoworkers’ exploitation.

The result was what came to be known as the “Treaty of Detroit.” Unlike 1945, bargaining happened largely in secret among top-level union and company officials. It gave autoworkers unprecedented increases in their overall standard of living. It guaranteed not only regular wage increases on top of an automatic COLA, but also pension and health benefits.

In exchange, GM got stability and control. Unlike previous contracts, the 1950 agreement lasted for a then-unprecedented five years. Additionally, the union gave GM complete control over management and production decisions.

At the time, future noted sociologist Daniel Bell, then working as the labor editor for Fortune magazine, published an analysis of the agreement that got to the heart of what the Treaty of Detroit was about. Bell wrote that “GM may have paid a billion for peace. But it got a bargain . . . General Motors has regained control over one of the crucial management functions — long range scheduling of production, model changes, and tool and plant investment.”

For his part, Reuther saw the Treaty of Detroit as a base upon which to build toward his more ambitious vision. But it ended up being a high-water mark that limited labor’s scope of action. It oriented unions away from broader social goals and toward building firm-level private welfare states for their own members. Not only did this make it harder to win broader policy reforms, but it contributed to creating an image of labor as a narrow “special interest” only out for its own members.

It is also the origin of what came to be known as the “legacy costs” of having individual corporations fund pension and health care benefits. As health care costs soared and some companies ended up with more retirees than workers, these private welfare states frayed.

So even though the Treaty of Detroit laid the foundation for the more economically equitable and prosperous postwar decades in the United States, it also planted the seeds of labor’s decline — particularly the UAW’s.

What is refreshing and hopeful about the UAW’s current fight is that Fain is trying to channel more of Reuther circa 1945 and less of Reuther circa 1950. He is making bargaining more political, tying worker wages to corporate profits, and articulating a broader social ideal through demands such as a shorter workweek with no cut in pay, among others. Fain is also going beyond Reuther in embracing the rhetoric of class war, denouncing the billionaire class, and calling on workers to be the agents of their own liberation.

It’s a heady, ambitious vision, and it may fall short this time. But it marks the first time in decades we have seen a critical part of the US labor movement try to shift onto a fundamentally different path.