DETROIT – The United Auto Workers strike is bringing a battle between workers and billionaires to the Motor City, just like the UAW President Shawn Fain wanted.

The outspoken union leader arguably used the strike – historically a union last resort – after a work stoppage of less than 24 hours better than any other UAW president in modern times.

It wasn’t a coincidence.

Fain, a quirky yet courageous leader, has carefully brought the UAW back into the national spotlight after decades of near-insignificance. He wants to represent not only union members, but also America’s embattled middle class, which helped found the UAW.

Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers union, joins striking UAW members on the strike line at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan, on September 15, 2023.

Rebecca Cook | Reuters

To that end, he capitalized on a years-long national labor movement and a growing antipathy among many Americans toward wealthy individuals and corporations — starting with his first address to the union’s more than 400,000 members during his inaugural address in March.

“We are here to come together and prepare for war against our only true enemy: billion-dollar corporations and employers who refuse to give our members their fair share,” Fain said at the time. “It’s a new day in the UAW.”

Fain’s comments Friday morning, as he joined UAW members and supporters demonstrating outside a Ford plant in Michigan – one of three plants the company is currently on strike against – echoed everything he said during his first speech .

“We have to do what we have to do to get our share of economic and social justice in this strike,” Fain said outside the Ford Bronco SUV and Ranger pickup plant. “We’re going to stay out here until we get our share of economic justice. And it doesn’t matter how long it takes.”

Fain’s upbringing plays a role in his strong union movement and religious beliefs, which he increasingly speaks about with his members as he emphasizes “faith” in the UAW cause. Two of his grandparents were UAW-GM retirees, and one grandfather started at Chrysler in 1937, the year the workers joined the union. Fain, who joined the UAW in 1994, even keeps one of his grandfather’s pay stubs in his wallet as a “reminder” of his heritage.

National media and others began to really pay attention to Fain when he said the union would hold off a re-election bid for President Joe Biden, who has called himself the “most pro-union president in history.” Fain and Biden have spoken and met, but the union leader hasn’t shown much support for the president. In response to the president’s comments on Friday, Fain said: “Workers are not afraid. Do you know who is afraid? The corporate media is afraid. The White House is afraid. Companies are afraid.”

While many previous union leaders have made such speeches, Fain has so far made good on his promises to members without batting an eyelid – leading to General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis entering crisis mode this week as the UAW kept its promise redeemed to the members.

“We’ve never seen anything like this; it’s frustrating,” Ford CEO Jim Farley told CNBC’s Phil LeBeau on Thursday as he criticized Fain and the union for the lack of communication and counteroffers. “I don’t know what Shawn Fain is doing, but he’s not negotiating this contract with us because it’s expiring.”

In a statement Friday, Ford said the UAW’s partial strike at its Michigan assembly plant forced the company to lay off about 600 workers.

“This is not a lockout,” Ford said. “This layoff is a result of the strike in the final assembly and painting department at the Michigan Assembly Plant because the components manufactured by these 600 employees use materials that require electrolytic coating for protection. Electrocoating is carried out in the painting department, so “on strike.”

GM CEO Mary Barra echoed Farley’s sentiments Friday morning on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

“I am extremely frustrated and disappointed,” she said. “We don’t have to go on strike now.”

Both CEOs said everything they could say They believe Fain may not be negotiating in good faith without using those exact words, which could warrant a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board.

The UAW filed an unfair labor practice lawsuit with the NLRB in late August against GM and Stellantis, claiming they failed to negotiate with the union in good faith or in a timely manner. No lawsuit has been filed against Ford. GM and Stellantis have denied these allegations.

Several former union leaders and corporate negotiators who spoke to CNBC praised the way Fain managed to put the UAW in the national spotlight, including pausing negotiations for a Friday rally and march with Sen. Bernie Sanders, the progressive lawmaker from Vermont. Sanders, whose surprise victory in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary in Michigan helped solidify his national prominence, has supported numerous labor movements across the country while railing against the billionaire class.

“I think they’re just doing a great job,” said respected former UAW President Bob King, who cited growing support for the union among the public and among his own union members. “Both measurements show that UAW communication was excellent.”

UAW members have taken notice — especially after many of them expressed contempt for union leadership during and after a years-long federal corruption investigation that sent two former UAW presidents and more than a dozen others to prison.

“In all the years I’ve worked here, it’s never been this bad,” Anthony Dobbins, a 27-year-old autoworker, said early Friday morning as he picketed outside the Ford plant in Michigan. “This is going to make history here because we’re trying to get what we deserve.”

Dobbins, a UAW union representative with Local 600, balked at the automakers’ recent record offers, which included about 20% wage increases, thousands of dollars in bonuses, retention of the union’s platinum health care plan and other discounted benefits.

“That doesn’t work for us. Give us what we asked for,” Dobbins said. “That’s what we want. We have to work seven days of overtime just to make ends meet.”

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain (center) poses with Anthony Dobbins (right), a 27-year-old auto worker, and others as the union demonstrates at a Ford plant in Wayne, Michigan, on September 15, 2023.

Michael Wayland/CNBC

The union’s key demands included a 40% increase in hourly wages; a reduced 32-hour week; a return to traditional pensions; the abolition of compensation levels; and a restoration of cost of living adjustments. Other items on the table include improved pension benefits and better vacation and family leave benefits.

Automakers have argued such demands would cripple businesses. Farley even said the company would be “now bankrupt” under the union’s current proposals and that members would not have benefited from an average profit share of $75,000 over the last decade.

Ford sources said the automaker would have lost $14.4 billion over the past four years if current demands had taken effect, instead of posting a profit of nearly $30 billion.

Such profits are exactly what Fain believes UAW members should share in. But his strategy to give workers a bigger piece of the pie carries big risks.

“This will not be positive from the perspective of the industry or for GM,” Barra said Friday.

Many outside the union If Fain pushes too hard, it could lead to long-term job losses for the union. A former senior negotiator at one of the automakers told CNBC that the companies are almost guaranteed to cut union jobs through product allocation, plant closures or other measures to offset increased labor costs.

“You have to pay. The question is how much,” said the longtime negotiator, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. “That leads to fewer jobs. This saves car manufacturers costs.”

Fain and other union leaders have argued that meeting the companies in the middle has led to dozens of plant closings, fewer union members and a widening gap between workers and the wealthy.

So why not fight?

“This is about us doing what we have to do to take care of the working class,” Fain said Friday. “This isn’t just about the UAW. This is about working people across this country. No matter what you do for a living, you deserve your fair share of justice.”

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