By Steven Greenhouse

April 22,  2024  The Guardian

 

After celebrating his union’s historic victory at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers, told the Guardian that he was confident of more unionization wins at auto plants across the US, saying: “The workers at VW are the first domino to fall.

“They have shown it is possible,” Fain added in an interview on Sunday evening. “I expect more of the same to come. Workers are fed up.”

The three-day unionization vote at Volkswagen ended last Friday, with the union winning overwhelmingly, 2,628 to 985 – the first time workers at a foreign-owned auto plant in the south have unionized. It was the world’s only non-union VW plant. The vote in Chattanooga was the first union vote in the UAW’s ambitious $40m campaign targeting 13 automakers, including VW, Mercedes, Tesla, BMW, Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai, with a total of 35 non-union plants across the US.

The UAW’s next scheduled unionization vote will be at the Mercedes plant in Vance, Alabama, where 5,000 workers will vote 13-17 May. Mercedes has been considerably more outspoken against the union than VW was, with a top Mercedes official telling workers: “I don’t believe the UAW can help us to be better.”

Fain voiced great confidence about winning at Mercedes despite the company’s anti-union efforts. “At the end of the day, I believe that workers at Mercedes definitely want a union,” he said, “and I believe a big majority there will vote in favor.”

At Mercedes, rank-and-file workers, not UAW officials, have taken the lead in organizing the plant. “Workers at Mercedes have literally run this campaign with very little help from us,” Fain said. “They wanted it that way. It’s great to see those workers feeling their power and being able to exercise their power.”

He scoffed at attacks from corporate executives and southern politicians that the UAW is a third party. He said that the union was its members, not an outside group, and that it was the companies that bring in third parties – outside consultants who spread anti-union information.

“The employees aren’t fooled by the companies’ tricks any more,” Fain said. “It’s the same tactics companies use every time. Workers have seen it repeatedly. I believe the workers are ready. They know the companies will continue to use fear and continue to use politicians as their surrogates using fear.”

In the Guardian interview, Fain fired back at the governors of six southern states who had condemned the UAW’s campaign, saying it was “driven by misinformation”. “They’re liars. The people who are doing the misleading are them,” Fain said. “These politicians are showing that they’re just puppets for corporate America, and they don’t give a damn about working-class people. They don’t care about the workers being left behind even though the workers are the ones who elect them.”

Fain was palpably angry that the Republican governors of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas had issued a joint letter denouncing the UAW as “special interests looking to come into our state and threaten our jobs”. Fain said the governors were the ones “wrecking the economy because they don’t care about working people having a decent wage. It’s working-class people who move the economy.” He added that the governors’ “economy is the economy of the billionaire class and corporate class where they take all the profits, and the workers get left behind”.

In a celebratory meeting with the VW workers in Chattanooga late on Friday night and in his interview with the Guardian, Fain said the VW workers now needed to focus on bargaining a first union contract. “I expect good things to happen for the VW workers,” he said. “We want to use the big three contracts as our framework.” He added that VW’s workers would play a big role in formulating “a list of demands” for the contract talks.

Fain acknowledged that unionizing Tesla might prove especially difficult, considering how fiercely anti-union Elon Musk is. “Elon’s extreme hostility to unions tells us about who he is,” Fain said. “He’s a billionaire who’s more concerned about ego and building rockets and flying to the moon than about taking care of the people who enabled him to do that, the people who create Tesla’s profits.”

Fain acknowledged that Musk “will probably be a lot more hostile” to a union drive than other CEOs. “At the end of the day, it’s the workers’ choice. It’s not Elon Musk’s choice,” he said. “As we continue to organize more and more companies, that makes it more and more inevitable that it [unionizing Tesla] is going to happen. We’re going to continue to show up and assist workers who want justice and better treatment on the job.”

Asked what Joe Biden should do to attract union members’ votes, Fain said: “He has to continue doing what he’s been doing, which is supporting workers in their fights.” Fain praised Biden for becoming the first sitting president to walk a union picket line – Biden joined a UAW picket line in Michigan last September when the union was on strike against Detroit’s big three automakers. He also praised Biden for making it easier to unionize EV battery plants.

Fain criticized Donald Trump’s stance on EVs. Trump has warned that Biden’s plans to expand EV sales could be a bloodbath for the US economy and a boon for Chinese manufacturers. Fain told the Guardian that Trump’s plans to shrink America’s EV industry could endanger many auto workers. “There are a lot of workers out there that in the [electric vehicle] industry who stand to lose their jobs,” he said.

At the victory celebration in Chattanooga, Fain urged VW’s workers to help auto workers elsewhere unionize their plants. To inspire the workers, Fain quoted Matthew 17:20: “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, move from here to there, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Fain told the Guardian that faith is important to him. “The foundation of all religion is love – love of your fellow human beings,” he said. “It’s important when we talk as workers and as labor that we talk about these things, that everything we do is about making life better for human beings. When three families have as much wealth as the bottom 50% of Americans, that’s the antithesis of everything that religion teaches. I’ll continue to lean on my faith. I don’t keep that any secret.”