December 3, 2023
Shawn Fain ran for the United Automobile Workers Union presidency last year on a campaign that promised: “No Corruption. No concessions. No tiers.”

This pledge was a reflection of the frustration of many members with the union scandals of the past and the concessions made to the Detroit automakers. It included a lower wage tier for younger employees. The platform was instrumental in propelling Mr. Fain into the top position, where he led a wave of walkouts to demand better contract terms.

The platform was largely in place before Mr. Fain ran for office. The platform was created by Unite All Workers for Democracy. This group was formed as a caucus in 2020, which is essentially a political party inside the union.

The group decided to overthrow the Administration Caucus which had been running the union for 70 years. Unite All Workers formulated its party platform in 2022. It recruited candidates, and intensified a campaign to elect these candidates.

After the dust settled, Mr. Fain was elected president of the 14-member union executive board. He had previously worked as a union employee. Unite All Workers is a key reason why the union takes such a tough stance with automakers.

Scott Houldieson is a founding member of the group, and a long-time Ford Motor employee in Chicago. “Shawn is very upfront about our goals.”

According to the union, the first fruits of this approach were evident on Wednesday when Ford and the union agreed upon terms for a four-year contract. This included a wage hike of approximately 25 percent over four years.

In a livestream on Facebook, Mr. Fain stated that “we hit the companies with maximum effect.” The union workers of the company must ratify the deal.

U.A.W. Members have formed groups in order to confront the top union officials or to at least encourage them to be more confrontational towards automakers. In 2007, the efforts became more urgent after the union agreed to tiers in order to stabilize automakers’ finances. Ford avoided bankruptcy, but G.M. and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy later.

Scott Houldieson, a founder of Unite All Workers for Democracy, said, “We had a platform we ran on, and we’re trying to push that platform forward.” Credit…Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times

The Administration Caucus has always had a secret weapon: the union leadership was not elected by members. Future leaders were chosen, in effect, by current leaders and then approved by convention delegates every four years.

This changed after two U.A.W. presidents were implicated in a corruption scandal. In 2020, two U.A.W. presidents were accused of embezzlement. In a referendum, union members voted on whether they wanted to elect their leaders directly as part of the consent order signed with the federal government. Unite All Workers – the group that pushed for this change – ran a full-scale campaign to convince union members to back “one member, one vote.”

Unite All Workers’ members, who paid an annual membership fee, were poised to be a major player in the 2022 union elections. The group had an annual budget of more than $100,000, as well as two full-time employees and hundreds of volunteers.

Mike Cannon, retired U.A.W. The Unite All Workers steering group is composed of members who serve on this committee. The only question was whether we would have candidates.

Unite All Workers has announced to anyone who wants to join their campaign slate that they will have to complete a detailed questionnaire as well as attend at least one of its meetings.

The group wanted candidates that were willing to work with rank-and-file union members to run the union and negotiate harder with employers. It wished to end wage tiers that it claimed divided and demoralized employees, and focus on organizing new workers, particularly among electric vehicle and batteries workers.

Mr. Fain was one of those who responded to the call. He was a member of the Stellantis union division, which is the parent company for Chrysler, Jeep, and Ram. Mr. Fain, during his interview, explained that, in 2007, as a local representative in Indiana, he was part of the opposition to the two-tiered wage structure that the union had adopted, and how, after joining the headquarters, he fought for more favorable contract terms.

Several members of the group were sceptical that an old guard employee could be a reformer. Other U.A.W. Dissidents have vouched him. Martha Grevatt said, “I knew that the claims were legitimate,” a Chrysler employee who is on the steering group of Unite All Workers.

Martha Grevatt said she had found Mr. Fain’s pledges to shake up the union “legit” even though he had been a staff member under the previous leadership.Credit…Daniel Lozada for The New York Times

All seven candidates were elected to the 14-member executive committee of the union by Mr. Fain’s group.

Mr. Fain, as president, has named critics of former leadership to be his top aides. One was a member of the Unite All Workers steering comittee. Board members including Mr. Fain have participated in the group’s WhatsApp chats and monthly meetings.

The group’s demands became during the union’s contract negotiation. Mr. Fain has indicated he wants to use the momentum of the strike to organize companies such as Tesla and Honda. This is a major goal of Unite All Workers.

Despite all the links between the group and union leadership, the two are not the same.

Some of the board members that ran for the Unite All Workers slate took positions at times in conflict with the group’s priorities. Margaret Mock has recently expressed concerns to other board members regarding the cost of the walkout to the union budget. Two people who attended the special board meeting held last week said that Mock made a proposal to reduce the amount of money spent on organizing during the walkout. The board rejected the proposal. Ms. Mock didn’t respond to an inquiry for comment.

Unite All Workers, for its part, considers that it is accountable to the rank-and-file membership, and not just an extension of those leaders they helped elect. Unite All Workers will appoint to form a taskforce to evaluate any tentative agreement with one of the three major automakers. The members of the group will decide whether or not to support the deal.

Andrew Bergman, , who serves on the Unite All Workers Steering Committee, stated that it is not automatic for the caucus to endorse an agreement.

In practice, however, it is unlikely that the group will oppose an accord, given how Mr. Fain has pushed for their core priorities.

In a streamed video on Friday, Mr. Fain explained why the strike will continue. When we vote on an agreement tentative, we will do so because your leadership and council believe we have gotten every dollar possible. This week, the union extended to the two largest U.S. plants, Stellantis and General Motors.

Employers and business groups have expressed concern about the approach. John Drake, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that Detroit automakers may struggle to remain competitive following the strike and that Mr. Fain seemed to be overreaching when he demanded concessions.

Mr. Fain has indicated that he hopes to use momentum from the strike to organize nonunion companies like Tesla and Honda, a key objective of the insurgent group that endorsed his candidacy.Credit…Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times

Unite All Workers is best compared to a group named Brand New Congress. This group was created by supporters and independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to help elect candidates for Congress beginning in 2018.

Brand New Congress encouraged an unknown New York bartender, activist and political newcomer named Alexandria Ocasio Cortez shortly after the 2016 presidential elections. A sister group provided training and campaign infrastructure to her . Two people who were involved in the groups became part of her staff after she won.

In principle, Ms. Ocasio Cortez could oppose their progressive views. In practice, this is unlikely. Her political identity is based on her worldview.

The story of Mr. Fain is also similar. He was an obscure progressive who was propelled to power by a group insurgents, and he was determined to implement their shared principles as soon as he was there. Unite All Workers, by supporting him and his co-workers, helped to win not only a few seats in the legislature, but also the reins of a whole union.

Vail Kohnert Yount, who is a member of the Unite All Workers steering comittee, had seconded M. Fain for the position of president at last year’s union convention. He spoke to her, telling her how he relied on government support as a young parent in decades past.

Ms. Kohnert Yount stated, “I remembered thinking that this guy had not forgotten his roots — he has remained the same person.” “We tried our best to support a candidate that we believed in.”

A caption for a photo that appeared with this article in an earlier version misspelled the name of the organization Scott Houldieson was a part of. Unite All Workers for Democracy is the correct name, not United Auto Workers for Democracy.

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