Oct 11, 2023 - Economy

UAW president stoking members' anger against auto executives

Illustration of a hand holding a hammer breaking away pieces of a briefcase.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The nearer the UAW gets to new contracts with the automakers, the tougher its anti-executive rhetoric is getting.

Why it matters: The union's aggressive turn is setting a new tone for the labor movement at a time when public support for unions is at a six-decade high, even as membership is at a record low.

  • "I think it will embolden others," Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, tells Axios. "Workers are frustrated."

Catch up quick: Wearing an "eat the rich" T-shirt while addressing union members, UAW President Shawn Fain on Friday ratcheted up the us-versus-them rhetoric, putting auto executives on blast.

  • "They look at me and they see some redneck from Indiana," said Fain, who grew up in Kokomo. "They look at you and see somebody they would never have over for dinner or let ride on their yacht or let fly on their private jet. They think they know us. But us auto workers know better."
  • His comments came in the same speech where he said negotiators had made "significant progress" toward a deal and that GM, in particular, had made major concessions.

Context: The anti-executive attacks come amid a furious fight over compensation — with the UAW saying the automakers must deliver "record contracts" while the auto companies say they can't afford to meet the union's demands.

  • About 25,000 UAW workers are currently on strike against GM, Ford and Stellantis in a work stoppage that began Sept. 15, marking the first time the union has struck all three Detroit Three automakers at the same time.

Quick take: This is not just rhetoric for Fain. He is passionately against enriching executives.

  • "Billionaires, in my opinion, don't have a right to exist," he said weeks before the strike began.
  • After he was narrowly elected to his post in March, he called the automakers "our one and only true enemy."

What they're saying: "He's tapping into a sentiment that's fairly widely held among the workforce," Bronfenbrenner says.

  • But, she adds, it's a departure from tamer words used by other union leaders in recent years — including unions like the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO.
  • "He is trying to rally his members and tap into their anger," she says.

Be smart: Fain is under pressure to deliver a big win for members — but he's also under pressure to reclaim the moral authority that the UAW lost in recent years.

The other side: GM CEO Mary Barra has accused the UAW of engaging in "theatrics," and the company says its focused on getting a deal done.

  • "The head of the UAW may consider us his enemy, but I'll never consider our employees our enemy," Ford executive chair Bill Ford Jr. said in July, Automotive News reported.

The bottom line: Rhetoric is strategy that can resonate long after the initial dispute is over.

Go deeper: UAW boss Shawn Fain's union tactics, explained

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