WAYNE, Mich. (AP) — Throughout its 5-week-old strikes against Detroit’s automakers, the United Auto Workers union has cast an emphatically combative stance, reflecting the style of its pugnacious leader, Shawn Fain.
Armed with a list of what even Fain has called “audacious” pay and benefit demands, the UAW leader has embodied the exasperation of workers who say they've struggled for years while the automakers made billions. Yet as the strikes have dragged on, analysts and even some workers have raised a pivotal question: Does Fain have an endgame to bring the strikes to a close?
People with personal ties to Fain say his approach reflects the straightforward manner he developed as he rose through the union's ranks. Others, though, say they worry that Fain set such high expectations for the pay and benefits he can extract from the companies that he risks incurring a personal setback if an eventual deal disappoints union members. A weak settlement could also make it difficult for Fain to expand UAW membership to non-union rivals such as Tesla and Toyota USA.
“He’s gotten far more from the companies than anyone, in particular the companies, may have expected,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor emeritus specializing in labor at the University of California Berkeley. “But now is the critical point where you pull the package together. If it isn’t now, when will it be?"
What began with 7,000 workers at one factory each of Ford, General Motors and Jeep maker Stellantis has grown to 34,000 at six plants and 38 parts warehouses. The companies say they've sweetened pay offers and made numerous concessions. GM even agreed to bring its new electric vehicle battery factories into the national UAW contract, essentially guaranteeing that workers of the future will belong to the union.
Three auto officials, who asked that they not be identified so they could speak candidly, say they're unsure whether Fain has a plan to end the strikes or whether he'll cling to demands that the companies say would be so costly as to jeopardize their ability to invest in the future.
Fain, who in March narrowly won the UAW's first-ever direct election of a president, had campaigned on promises to end cooperation with the automakers, essentially declaring war on them. He has complained that the companies have failed to restore concessions the union members made before and during the 2008-2009 Great Recession, when the industry was teetering.
Some auto executives have accused Fain of showmanship and of failing to negotiate seriously. Yet his strategy so far has largely succeeded. The companies have offered to raise pay increases from single digits to 23% over four years, restore cost-of-living pay and end lower tiers of wages.
Yet obstacles remain. The UAW has demanded 36% general raises; defined-benefit pensions for workers hired after 2007; and pension increases for retirees.
On the picket lines, some wonder just how long Fain will keep them out.
“If they can't come to terms, what happens then?” asked Dawn Krunzel, a team leader at Stellantis' Jeep complex in Toledo, Ohio, one of the first plants to walk out.
All that Fain is seeking, Krunzel said, is for workers to be made whole for concessions that saved the companies when they were in financial danger.
“I'm hoping Fain is smart enough to say, ‘Enough is enough,' "she said. "You never get everything you want.”
Doc Killian, who works at a Ford plant near Detroit, said Fain should hold out as long as necessary to secure bigger raises, unionization of battery plants and increased pensions.
In contrast to his predecessors, Fain has insulted CEOs and revealed company pay offers in live video appearances. He has frequently likened the UAW's fight to a battle between the beleaguered working class and billionaires.
Disputing the auto officials' argument, Fain said the companies can afford to pay more.
“We have plans," he said. “We have strategies and tactics to keep winning at the table.”
With roots in small-town Indiana, Fain, 54, was known as a straight-arrow young man who respected teachers and coaches at Taylor High School near Kokomo. Paul Nicodemus, a childhood friend, said Fain derived his values from his father, who was Kokomo's police chief, and his mother, a nurse.
Nicodemus doesn't recall Fain as being outspoken about economic inequities — probably, he said, because there wasn’t much inequality in Kokomo. Nearly everyone’s parents worked at either Chrysler or General Motors' Delco factories.
“Shawn was the type that loved to make people laugh,” Nicodemus said. “To know he's in a spot now that this is not a laughing matter and he's having to put his foot down — in my eyes, he's doing a phenomenal job.”
After high school, Fain became an electrician at a Chrysler castings plant in Kokomo and joined the UAW. As he rose to local shop chairman, he warned against becoming too chummy with automakers. In 2007, he opposed the union leadership's push for a contract that created lower tiers of wages for new workers. Still, the deal was ratified.
Bill Parker, who chaired the union's national negotiating committee at Chrysler, said Fain joined him to oppose the deal. Fain later took a job with the union's national staff in Detroit, still pushing to be more aggressive with the automakers.
When a federal embezzlement and bribery investigation rocked the union starting in 2017, it opened the door to Fain's campaign for higher office. In a settlement to avoid a federal takeover, the union agreed to let members decide if they wanted direct elections of leaders. They did, and Fain defeated an incumbent.
“What you see is what he is,” Parker said.
Parker, whom Fain tapped to be an assistant, says he's sure Fain has a plan to end the strikes. He just doesn't know what it is.
Brian Rothenberg, a former union spokesman, said all union presidents struggle over when to take a company offer to members to end a strike.
“There comes a point," Rothenberg said, "where the members really push if they feel a need for resolution. In the end, this is an employment contract, and the endgame will be a contract."
Tom Krisher, The Associated Press