'It's a new day in the UAW': Fain urges unity in the face of 'only true enemy'

Detroit — Just a little over 24 hours into his presidency, Shawn Fain opened the United Auto Workers' Special Bargaining Convention by declaring that the union is "ready to get back in the fight."

Fain, a challenger candidate who was sworn in as president Sunday after a lengthy runoff election that ended with him narrowly ousting former President Ray Curry, also called for unity to face the real "enemy" — the employers — during brief remarks to open the convention Monday at Huntington Place. The three-day event drew hundreds of UAW delegates from across the country to determine the union's bargaining priorities ahead of crucial contract negotiations with the Detroit automakers later this year.

“The people have spoken. The rumble of the election is finished. Your new democratically elected International Executive Board has met … and we are united to serve you," Fain said. "Now, we’re here to come together to ready ourselves for the war against our one and only true enemy: multi-billion corporations and employers that refuse to give our members their fair share. It’s a new day in the UAW.”

With the change at the helm of the UAW less than a day old, noticeable divisions emerged on the convention floor. Many delegates didn’t stand for Fain when he was introduced. Supporters of the Administrative Caucus that long ran the UAW periodically made their loyalties clear, heartily applauding Curry and many giving a standing ovation to Chuck Browning, who was re-elected as a vice president.

The afternoon brought a lengthy, heated debate over ensuring cost-of-living adjustments — a benefit UAW workers lost in 2009 — as a priority during bargaining with General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis NV. A motion, supported by the Unite All Workers for Democracy dissident caucus that backed Fain, was made to bring a resolution out of committee that would make COLA more of a central focus during negotiations.

Scott Houldieson, UAWD steering committee chair and member of UAW Local 551 in Chicago, loudly claimed during the debate on the resolution that he’s ready to go on strike to get COLA back: “I’m ready to get my members ready to go on strike. We’re coming for ya. We want our COLA back."

Houldieson got some of the crowd to chant with him: "No COLA, no contract. No COLA, no contract."

Others questioned if COLA should be a top priority among many other issues the UAW will have to fight for this fall. Some delegates voiced concern that demanding the return of COLA would tie the bargaining teams' hands and make the union vulnerable to concessions in other places.

Clarence E. Brown, president of Local 31 in Fairfax, Kansas, representing GM Fairfax Assembly workers, stood up during the debate over the COLA resolution to encourage trust in the bargaining teams selected: "Is there anything wrong with trusting the people we have elected? ... They're going to go in there and fight for everything you're talking about."

Ultimately, the resolution failed 38% to 62%.

Unity sought despite divisions

In another signal that reform-minded members don't have full control over the union, a proposal from a UAWD member to increase the number of delegates needed to close debate on resolutions was shot down. Another UAWD proposal to lower the vote threshold needed to bring resolutions out of committee and onto the convention floor failed.

In a post-convention press conference, Fain said he does not believe the differences on display Monday are reflective of how rank-and-file members feel.

“We have a 70-year entrenched caucus that did a phenomenal job in the past of getting delegates elected that support their cause or their issues. Those delegates were elected prior to the last convention, so it’s a very pro-Administration Caucus delegation still," he said. "What you may have seen in there today, to me, is not indicative of where the membership is.”

Robert Bickerstaff, president of Local 1435 representing workers at Stellantis NV's Toledo Machining plant, is hoping to get more work out of the next set of negotiations.

He voted for Fain "because we needed change. It wasn't happening with the past administrations. The last probably three terms of presidents have not been doing their due diligence for our local union, our plant. The company's been chopping work out of our plant for the 10 years, and it's time to fight back."  

Fain declined to get into specific strategies his administration may be considering ahead of negotiations, but he said that job security and the end of tiered wage structures are top of mind. Members, he said, are ready to fight.

During his convention speech, Fain sought to put the election behind the union and chart a path toward unity ahead of contract talks — even as he encouraged "spirited and forceful debate" among delegates. He leaned heavily on the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., drawing a parallel between the UAW's situation and divisions that emerged among Civil Rights leaders after key legislative victories had been secured in the mid-1960s.

The convention brought together the union's new 14-member International Executive Board, made up of Fain, Secretary-Treasurer Margaret Mock (the union's first African American woman to serve in the role), three vice presidents and nine regional directors. Historically controlled by the Administrative Caucus, the first-ever direct elections of IEB members ushered in eight reform candidates. The Administrative Caucus held on to six seats.

“You all have made history. For the first time, we as a union have had the courage to give all members the right to vote on our union’s direction," Fain said. "When given the chance to vote, the membership chose change. We’re choosing to fight.”

Fain cited King's 1967 book "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" in which he detailed a vision for the future of the Civil Rights Movement in areas like affordable housing and pushing for higher wages for workers.

“Dr. King’s words resonate with us today. Our union is moving from rights on paper to rights in action. We’ve won the right to vote for our top leadership. We have the right to strike. We have the right to a grievance procedure. We have the right to arbitration, to collective bargaining," Fain said. "But we have not yet won the rights that will fundamentally change this union and change this country."

Some examples that he gave: a lack of racial and economic justice in workplaces, tiered wage structures in contracts, plant closures, and millions of workers in the U.S. who are not unionized. But Fain expressed optimism that the UAW has the tools it needs to achieve such lofty ambitions.

"As Dr. King took stock of the Civil Rights Movement, he noted every revolutionary movement has its peaks of united activity and its valleys of debate," he said. "So brothers and sisters, let us debate the future of our union. And let us emerge from this valley of debate to our highest peak yet, and then let us move forward as the UAW — united.”

Mayor Mike Duggan and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow both addressed the convention via pre-recorded video messages. U.S. Sen. Gary Peters spoke in person, touting Michigan's move to repeal its right-to-work law and restore a prevailing wage law; calling for passage of the PRO Act; and arguing that new auto industry jobs making electric-vehicle batteries and other components must be unionized.

Unifor President Lana Payne, who represents autoworkers at the Detroit Three plants in Canada, spoke Monday about unifying with the UAW in their fight with the companies. Unifor and the UAW will be negotiating at the same time this fall.

"I've already expressed to Shawn my belief that we are experiencing a special moment across the working class in North America, and that if we organize enough to seize it, we can profoundly change the future for working people in both our countries," she said. "In his response to me, Shawn said he's looking forward to be in this fight together, and I couldn't agree more."

Fain doesn't see the concurrent UAW-Unifor negotiations with automakers as a challenge, but rather a source of solidarity, he said: "We have to go global. We have to show a unified approach.

"I believe there’s a lot of product to go around. … I just believe we have to work together and be on the same page, so we’re not allowing ourselves to be whipsawed by the companies.”