Shawn Fain: “The Working Class Is the Arsenal of Democracy”

United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain: “We win by giving working-class people the tools, the inspiration, and the courage to stand up for themselves.”

United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain speaking with autoworkers at the a Stellantis assembly plant on July 12, 2023, in Sterling Heights, Michigan. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

Something’s happening in this country, something we haven’t seen in a long, long time: the working class is standing up.

Forty-eight hours ago, four thousand workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, did what many people said was impossible. We did what the pundits said couldn’t be done. Every time I was interviewed by people and we talked about organizing the South, they would always do an eye roll and say, “Do you really think you can win in the South?”

You know what? Those workers stood up for themselves, and they voted for a union.

I want to recognize a person in this room, because this battle wasn’t won by me. It wasn’t won by one person, but there is one person that we injected into this drive midway through, with a group of people we brought in to help get things back on track and moving, and that’s Carla Villanueva. We took a group of organizers and leaders like Carla, and we injected them right into the belly of the beast in the American South, where the working class has been shut down and shut out and told to shut up for decades — where the pundits said that we couldn’t win.

It’s not just Volkswagen we’re here to talk about today. It’s also the five thousand workers at Mercedes-Benz in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Those brave workers down there are ready to vote for a union, and they’re going to be voting in the second week of May.

It’s also the seven thousand Daimler workers in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. I want to talk about those workers at Daimler because they told management that if they don’t get the deal by next Friday, they’re going to shut shit down.

With our victory at Volkswagen, autoworkers around the country are speaking with one voice now. We’re telling corporate America that their time is up — let me assure you of this. When I was at Daimler Truck, we came up with a saying: when I say, “Time’s up,” you say, “Tick-tock, motherfucker!”

Labor Notes and Union Reform

It’s not just corporate America that has something to learn from our union family at Volkswagen. It’s us — it’s the labor movement. Over twenty years ago, I was a young union activist who was ready to fight the boss. I was ready to fight for a better life. I was stunned when I got elected to my first term as a committeeman at my plant, to find myself in a union with leadership that seemed to have no interest in that fight.

When I travel around and speak about faith, I’ve been known to bring my grandmother’s Bible with me. But as a young union activist, I had another bible: The Troublemaker’s Handbook from Labor Notes. This was my bible when I became a union rep, and it taught me how to fight the boss and how to fight company unionism at the same time. I’ve got a section here flagged. You can see the multiple highlights I have in this section, chapter five, which is “Dealing with Labor-Management Cooperation Programs.” Because we were living them at UAW.

This bible taught me another kind of faith. It taught me faith in the membership; it taught me faith in the working class. It’s that faith that carried the UAW to our new chapter in history.

About two years ago, I put my faith in the membership of UAW, and I ran for office. I was supported by — and I would not be standing here today as president of the UAW if it wasn’t for — the badass members of UAWD [Unite All Workers for Democracy], a reform caucus. I’m a proud member of UAWD. As UAWD said then, we’re putting an end to company unionism, an end to concessions, an end to corruption, an end to tiers.

In UAWD, we were also inspired by the Teamsters for a Democratic Union. We drew a boatload of inspiration from Labor Notes and everybody else who has fought to put the movement back in the labor movement.

We put our faith in the membership, and the membership spoke. The members chose to end company unionism. The members chose to fight. We took that fight straight to the companies of the Big Three, and we took them on like we’ve never taken them on before.

After years of concessions and givebacks, we put forward very bold demands, and we were laughed at for it in the beginning. We kept the companies guessing, after years of them getting a free pass. We won things nobody thought was possible, and we’ve secured the reopening of a plant [near Chicago], Belvidere Assembly, after decades of closures.

When I took over as president, the electric battery industry was on a race to the bottom, with starting pay at $16 an hour, and after seven years $20 top pay. We went after that. We went after putting [electric battery construction] in our master agreements, and we laid the groundwork for a just EV [electric vehicle] transition.

We killed the wage tiers. We shortened the progression to full pay. We won back cost-of-living allowances. We ended the abuse of temps. But more than anything, what we won in that contract is, we got our union back. We put the membership in charge, and we remembered how to fight, and we remembered how to win.

The Working Class Is the Arsenal of Democracy

We noticed something after we won all this, after we put the membership back in charge. It started by the dozens, then the hundreds, and then the thousands. Nonunion autoworkers were reaching out to join our movement.

When I was campaigning for this job, I said a lot that bargaining good contracts leads to organizing success — they go hand in hand. So the stand-up strike wasn’t just about the Big Three. It was about the entire working class.

It was about proving one thing: that the working class can win. We don’t win by playing defense or reacting to things. We don’t win by playing nice with the boss. We don’t win by telling our members what to do, what to say, or how to say it. We win by giving working-class people the tools, the inspiration, and the courage to stand up for themselves.

In the 1940s, during World War II, UAW members were building B-42 Liberator bombers at the Willow Run plant. Those bombers were a big piece in the arsenal of democracy that helped defeat the fascists, who were seeking to divide and conquer the working class. The UAW was responsible for creating the arsenal of democracy that led to the United States winning the war.

At Willow Run, on that day the president visited us on the picket line, I said that we found ourselves facing a new enemy, a new authoritarian threat. But it wasn’t some faraway country; it wasn’t some other state. It was right here at home in our workplaces, and that enemy is corporate greed.

For decades, corporate greed has threatened to destroy the working class. Workers are told that their rights end at the workplace door and told to shut up or starve. For decades, workers have been led to believe there’s no other way. They’ve been led to believe that resistance is futile, that the class war that has been waged on us for decades is unwinnable. Workers have been led to believe that working-class people don’t have the power, the will, or the courage to fight back.

Today, from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Chicago, Illinois, we say: Hell no! We say the working class is the arsenal of democracy and the workers are the liberators. The one thing I’ve seen throughout this fight, and the one thing we know, is that it’s not a CEO that’s going to save us. It’s not a president that’s going to save us. It’s not me and it’s not you — it’s us, and it’s a united working class. That’s how we’re going to win.