Entering contract negotiations with the three Detroit automakers, Shawn Fain set high expectations for what he could win for his union members, and he met many of them. He won significant wage increases, better benefits, the right to strike over plant closures, and a host of other concessions.
But for the president of the United Auto Workers, the agreements that emerged from talks marked by six weeks of strikes were simply the beginning of a streak of victories and a rebirth for the 88-year-old union. Now, Fain has set his latest ambitious goal: getting the UAW into membership with non-union companies across the industry, from foreign automakers with U.S. operations like Toyota to electric vehicle makers like Tesla and plants of electric vehicle batteries that will likely account for a sizable portion of U.S. automotive jobs. the decades to come.
Fain said in an interview with The Associated Press that the contracts have already benefited workers at non-union auto companies: shortly after the UAW won major pay raises for its workers, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Nissan (all non-union operations ) recruited their own workers. ‘ in what Fain characterized as an obvious attempt to prevent the UAW from unionizing that workforce.
Last week, workers at General Motors, Ford and Stellantis collectively voted 64% to ratify the new settlement agreements, which are among the richest contracts in the UAW’s 88-year history. The agreements ended many pay levels, gave temporary hires better salaries and a path to full-time work, and increased annual 401(k) contributions from about 6% to 10% for those without pension plans.
According to Fain, workers at some non-union plants, including electric vehicle sales leader Tesla, have contacted the UAW to join the union, which has not even begun its organizing efforts. Fain noted that non-union companies did not raise their workers’ wages until the UAW won general and cost-of-living raises, which should reach 33% by the time contracts expire in 2028.
“Companies sometimes take their workers for fools,” he said in the interview. “They worry about keeping more for themselves and leaving employees to fend for themselves.”
Fain, who took office just eight months ago in the first direct election of UAW leaders in its history, said the time is right for unions to grow as they did in the 1930s and 1940s, before they began a Steady decline starting in the 1950s. American workers, he said, are fed up with stagnant wages, while corporate executives earn increasing multiples of the median worker’s wage.
Fain said companies will spend “unlimited amounts” to try to stop the UAW, but the union can point to its Detroit contracts to show workers they will have a voice. In that sense, he said, the union is a “great equalizer.”
Fain declined to say which non-union companies the UAW would target first. But at the top of the list is Tesla, whose largest shareholder is CEO Elon Musk, the world’s richest man and an outspoken opponent of the union.
“The richest man in the world is the richest man for a reason,” Fain said. “They get this kind of wealth by exploiting other people.”
Musk, who also runs rocket company SpaceX, is talking about sending Tesla production to Mexico and other low-cost countries.
A message was left seeking comment from Tesla.
The union leader said he hopes Toyota, Honda and others will fight the UAW’s organizing effort by threatening to close factories or eliminate benefits. Musk has threatened to end stock awards given to production workers if they vote to join the union. Fain said the UAW, if given the opportunity, would negotiate to retain and increase those stock awards.
The union, Fain says, will also have to organize the Detroit automakers’ electric vehicle battery plants, which are joint ventures with South Korean companies. GM and Stellantis, the maker of Jeep and Ram vehicles, agreed to include their joint venture plants under the union’s national contract, making it easier for the UAW to sign them up. Ford has not done so.
That, he said, could become a problem if Ford fights the UAW’s efforts to organize at plants in Kentucky and Tennessee.
“Unless they change their tune, it will be an all-out war,” Fain said.
Ford agreed to include a wholly owned battery plant in Michigan and a planned electric truck plant in Tennessee in the UAW contract. But in the interview, Fain accused CEO Jim Farley of agreeing to work with the union at the joint venture plants, only to later renege.
“At that point, things didn’t go well,” Fain said. “We had to move forward where we could, and we did.”
A message was left at Ford seeking a response to Fain’s allegation.
Fain declined to say what his fight would look like or whether it could mean a strike against Ford in 2025, when the joint venture’s plants will open.
“It just means we’re going to do what we have to do to get it,” he said. “Those workers deserve their fair share of economic and social justice.”
Ford has said it could not commit to unionizing battery plants because its joint venture partner would have to agree. In addition, Ford has said that the plants have not been built and that he cannot accept the unionization of workers who have not yet been hired.
In contract negotiations, Fain said, he would have liked to get stronger pension increases for long-time workers with defined benefit plans. He would also like to receive steady pension checks for new employees instead of 401(k) plans. The union plans to seek changes to the law requiring “retirement security” for all workers and will push for the benefits in 2028 contract negotiations.
In the interview, Fain said he doesn’t expect the higher costs automakers will absorb from the new contracts will lead them to build new factories in Mexico or Canada. The union, he said, can strike if a plant in the United States closes and could take action if companies build new factories elsewhere.
The UAW, he said, will try to work with the companies. But he noted that partnering with automakers in the past to address costs has generally benefited them by excluding workers. He highlighted concessions the UAW agreed to in 2008 to help automakers survive serious financial problems.
This time, he said, union members negotiated for themselves but also won raises for non-union workers in the South who would have received nothing without the UAW.
“That’s something to be proud of,” he said.