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U.S. auto union leader promises fight to get workers a 'fair share'

By Joseph White and David Shepardson

DETROIT (Reuters) - Shawn Fain, the new president of the United Auto Workers union, on Monday said he is ready to go to war against "employers who refuse to give our members their fair share."

Fain spoke to a gathering of local union leaders in Detroit after being declared the UAW's president on Saturday. He won a closely-contested race against incumbent Ray Curry by fewer than 500 votes, according to the count administered by a court appointed monitor.

Now, Fain faces the task of unifying UAW members for what promises to be difficult negotiations this summer and fall with the Detroit Three automakers - Ford Motor Co, General Motors Co and Stellantis NV's.

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The auto sector talks come as the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign begins to heat up. U.S. President Joe Biden and other Democrats are appealing to the UAW and its members for votes in Michigan, a 2024 swing state.

Michigan Democratic U.S. Senator Gary Peters told attendees at Monday's convention that EV batteries and chips should be built by union labor.

Fain said during his campaign that he will fight for substantial changes to the current master contracts with the Detroit automakers, and he reiterated that message to UAW bargaining convention delegates on Monday.

"The United Auto Workers are ready to get back in the fight," Fain said.

On the UAW president's agenda are ending the current two-tier wage system under which new hires at Detroit Three plants earn 25% less than UAW workers with five or more years on the job.

Fain has also called for reinstatement of cost of living adjustments, or COLA, to offset inflation, no concessions on health benefits and no U.S. plant closings.

The UAW last year negotiated 10% wage increases in the first year of a six-year agreement with farm equipment maker John Deere. That contract was ratified after a six-week strike. Earlier this month, UAW workers at heavy equipment maker Caterpillar ratified a six-year contract providing for 27% wage increases over its life.

Those contracts could be models for the UAW's goals in talks with the Detroit automakers beginning this summer, analysts said.

The Detroit automakers have reported robust profits during the past four years from their North American operations, mainly thanks to the pickup trucks and SUVs that UAW members assemble.

However, North American operations for the Detroit Three automakers are under pressure as they pour billions into electric vehicles and battery production. All three companies have moved to cut costs, reducing salaried staff or, in Stellantis' case, idling a U.S. assembly plant.

The UAW and Detroit automakers will begin bargaining toward new contracts this summer. The current contracts expire on Sept. 14. Usually, the UAW concludes an agreement with one Detroit automaker and uses that as the pattern for contracts at the other two. For the first time in many years, Canadian auto workers will also be negotiating new contracts with the Detroit Three at the same time.

In 2019, UAW workers at General Motors went on strike for 40 days before a new contract was ratified, costing the automaker $3 billion.

(Reporting By Joe White; Editing by Aurora Ellis)