New UAW President Wants Respect for Rank-and-File

Shawn Fain emphasizes he was elected on a reform platform and has pledged to do away with what he describes as “company unionism.”

Joseph Szczesny

April 26, 2023

3 Min Read
Stellantis Belvidere IL Cherokee assembly
UAW wants Stellantis to reopen Belvidere, IL, assembly plant closed since Feb. 28.Stellantis

The new president of the UAW says that, between threatening job security with plant closings and subverting existing labor contracts with joint ventures, Detroit’s automakers lack respect for their workers and their contributions to the companies’ success.  

“If Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares thinks he can fly over here to threaten our members about product and absenteeism, that is a problem,” Shawn Fain says during a videoconference with Detroit’s Automotive Press Assn. in which he cites issues that will influence the union’s upcoming contract negotiations with General Motors, Ford and Stellantis.

Tavares, according to social media posts by local UAW officers, lectured leaders of Local 140 at an assembly plant in Warren, MI, about absenteeism among workers. Jeep and Ram products built at that and other Detroit-area plants account for a major portion of Stellantis’ profits.

UAW Shawn Fain screenshot.png

UAW Shawn Fain screenshot_0

Local union officials blame the absenteeism on chronic understaffing and employees’ inability to get time off for family emergencies.

The UAW expects Stellantis to reverse its decision to close the Belvidere, IL, assembly plant where the Jeep Cherokee was built until earlier this year, Fain says, calling the shutdown a clear violation of the current labor contract.

Stellantis officials had no comment on Fain’s statements.

Sworn in less than a month ago as the UAW’s first president elected directly by union members, following a scandal in which more than a dozen of the union’s officers were sent to prison for embezzlement and violations of U.S. labor law, Fain (pictured, above left) emphasizes he was elected on a reform platform and has pledged to do away with what he describes as “company unionism.”

Union-management relations advocated by his predecessors failed to address critical concerns of UAW members, says Fain, who was trained as an electrician before becoming a local union officer and negotiator in Kokomo, IN. Fain says he wants the union to become a voice not only for its members but also for the working class in the U.S.

For too long employers have not respected union members or their contributions to company profits and success, says Fain. Meanwhile, the companies maneuver to get around existing contract language by forming joint ventures to drive down wages and benefits and let working conditions deteriorate, he says.

At the new electric-vehicle battery plant in Lordstown, OH, where employees voted last December to join the UAW, Ultium, the GM-LG Energy JV, has offered the union a proposed contract with a starting wage of $16.50 per hour, topping out at $20, Fain says.

“That type of scale is unacceptable,” he says. “That has to change.”

Work at battery plants comes with safety issues and requires an extensive amount of training, which justifies higher wages, Fain notes.

Stellantis has set up a battery venture in Kokomo, where nearly 8,000 UAW members make conventional engines and transmissions. But there is no provision for union members to move to the new battery plant as their old jobs begin to disappear, the union president says.

Fain says he was shocked the UAW has said little about Ford’s plans to build a new complex for building EVs and batteries in Tennessee. As it stands, there is nothing to indicate jobs there will go to UAW members, he says.

Fain also notes Ford announced plans to import the Lincoln Nautilus from China without even bothering to notify the union and permanently closed a plant in Romeo, MI, while searching for other production sites for EVs. “Our members deserve better,” he says.

UAW members expect the union’s leadership to take a harder line as they negotiate new labor agreements with the Detroit Three automakers this summer, Fain says.

“We were elected to change things,” he says. “It’s not about being adversarial, it’s about respect.”

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