Rick Haglund: Will the new UAW president’s tough talk translate to wins at the bargaining table?

April 10, 2023 4:27 am

UAW Local 14 striking workers from Toledo demonstrate at GM headquarters, Oct. 14, 2019 | Ken Coleman

When newly elected United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain said Detroit automakers and other multibillion-dollar companies were the union’s “one and only true enemy,” my mind flashed backed to one of his combative predecessors: the late Stephen Yokich.

Yokich, who led the UAW from 1994 to 2002, was a brash, tough-talking labor leader who didn’t mince words in expressing his disdain for certain auto executives.

He once called J.T. Battenberg, who headed General Motors’ then-sprawling Delphi parts operation “that snake J.T.”  When asked by a reporter what Battenberg could do to improve relations with the UAW, Yokich bluntly replied, “Quit.”

Yokich led the UAW in several strikes against GM parts plants, including a 1998 walkout against two Flint factories that lasted 54 days and largely shut down GM’s entire North American manufacturing operations. The strikes, the longest against GM since 1970, were mainly about productivity and plant-closing issues.

Shawn Fain | UAW Members United video screenshot

Fain appears to have ripped a few pages out of Yokich’s playbook as he leads the union into contract negotiations this year with GM, Ford and Stellantis. The talks could prove to be the most fraught for workers and the automakers since the domestic auto industry nearly collapsed in the late 2000s.

The new UAW president, the first to be directly elected by the members, has drawn a line in the sand with automakers. Fain vowed to end the two-tier wage structure in which newly hired workers earn less than incumbent workers doing similar jobs, halt wage-and-benefit concessions and root out corruption in the union.

“Today we put the companies on notice: the fighting UAW is back,” he said in a video message to the union’s nearly 400,000 members, most of whom are employed outside of the auto industry in casinos, universities, hospitals, state and local governments and other organizations.

One longtime industry insider told me he doesn’t think the union and automakers will be able to reach new contracts without a walkout. The current four-year pacts expire on Sept. 14.

“I’m fully expecting a strike. [Fain is] talking tough. It’s not just him, it’s his whole team,” said veteran auto journalist John McElroy, who hosts a variety of online automotive programs. “I don’t expect a kumbaya singalong.”

Fain’s bomb throwing comes as workers nationwide are organizing and demanding better pay and working conditions. More than 2,500 union representation petitions were filed with the National Labor Relations Board in the latest fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, a 53% increase from 2021.

That was the highest number of union representation petitions filed since 2016, according to the NLRB. 

And a Gallup poll last year found that 71% of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest percentage since 1965. Little more than half of Americans approved of unions just a decade ago.

This would seem to be a good year for the UAW to cash in at the bargaining table. Despite plant shutdowns during the COVID pandemic and lingering computer chip shortages, automakers are ringing up billions of dollars in profits.

UAW members are benefitting from the windfall in record profit sharing payments at GM and Stellantis and near-record payouts at Ford this year.

But at the same time, automakers are rapidly cutting costs to afford billions of dollars in electric vehicle development. Ford laid off 3,000 salaried employees last August while 5,000 white-collar workers took buyouts at GM this month.

Earlier this year, GM reportedly cut 500 salaried jobs, a move described by McElroy as a direct response to fears that the Federal Reserve’s rate hikes could push the economy into recession later this year.

Automakers are “listening to [Federal Reserve Chairman] Jerome Powell say, ‘I’m going to keep raising interest rates until I kill this economy,’ ” McElroy said.

Were that to happen, it would be bad news for the UAW’s prospects at the bargaining table.

Fain also faces the task of trying to repair a fractured union while at the same time leading crucial national auto contract talks for the first time.

The leader of the upstart UAW Members United caucus, Fain narrowly defeated incumbent President Ray Curry by a 50.2%-to-49.8% margin. And only about 14% of eligible members and retirees voted in the election.

UAW members are benefitting from the windfall in record profit sharing payments at GM and Stellantis and near-record payouts at Ford this year. But at the same time, automakers are rapidly cutting costs to afford billions of dollars in electric vehicle development.

“That signals there’s disaffection in the UAW,” said Harry Katz, a professor of collective bargaining at Cornell University. “I wouldn’t say [Fain] has an overwhelming mandate.”

Katz, who has studied auto industry labor negotiations for decades, said it’s wrong to think the UAW suddenly grew a spine with Fain’s election.

“Past presidents weren’t wimps. They negotiated strong agreements” that were in line with economic realities at the time, said Katz, a member of the UAW’s Public Review Board, an independent panel of academics that rules on appeals involving member disputes with the union.

Katz said he thinks the likely outcome of this year’s auto contract talks will be the UAW winning a higher base wage, the restoration of a cost-of-living allowance and the narrowing of the two-tier wage gap.

But the UAW will be hard pressed to preserve and grow jobs, he said, in part because of the transition to electric vehicles. The union has estimated that 35,000 jobs could be wiped out in plants that produce engines and transmissions for gasoline-powered vehicles.

The UAW, which currently has about 150,000 members at the Detroit Three, also has failed to organize workers at foreign automakers and new electric vehicle manufacturers, such as Tesla and Rivian.

It all adds up to what could be a minefield for the relatively unknown Fain, who must balance sharp-edged talk with deft negotiating skills.

“It’s not easy, even for an experienced bargainer,” Katz said.


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Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund

Rick Haglund writes the "Micheconomy" column for the Michigan Advance. He's a former reporter and business columnist for Booth Newspapers, now the MLive Media Group, with extensive experience covering Michigan’s economy and the auto industry. He now works as a freelance writer based in Southeast Michigan.