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'We're going to wreck their economy:' UAW president Shawn Fain has a plan. Will it work?

KOKOMO, Ind. – Buried deep in the wallet of Shawn Fain is a well-worn pay stub of one of his two grandfathers. It’s a reminder of where the new United Auto Workers president comes from.

Two of his grandparents were General Motors retirees at Kokomo and one worked at Chrysler starting in 1937. Nine years later in 1946, the UAW’s negotiation strategy with the then-Big Three American automakers was to bargain with one, and then use that template for the other two.

Fain is now in the vortex of the American labor movement. He was elected as president of the UAW in March after beginning his career as an electrician at the Chrysler Kokomo Casting Plant. His election was seen as a sea change in the world of automaking.

“He’s always been a labor activist. He was always locally popular with rank and file members,” said former Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, who worked for Haynes International and was a union president at the same time as Fain was at Chrysler (now a unit of Stellantis).

Brian Howey
Brian Howey

But Fain is negotiating in Detroit far differently than his predecessors. The UAW’s contracts at the Detroit automakers expired at 11:59 p.m. on Sept. 14 . He said on Wednesday that while there has been progress, the four sides are still far apart.

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In the year before the Great Recession put Chrysler and GM on the brink of extinction in 2008, “Shawn was anti-ratification due to the agreement implementing tiers and cutting wages for workers in half,” the UAW website said. “Many times, at council meetings, he was ostracized for speaking up against the agreements as they didn’t serve the best interest of the Membership.”

Fain was asked on CNN last week whether a strike at the Detroit automakers could damage the recovering U.S. economy. “In the last decade, they made a quarter of a trillion dollars in profits,” Fain said. “It’s not that we’re going to wreck the economy. We’re going to wreck their economy, the one that works for the billionaire class. It doesn’t work for the working class.”

Fain also isn’t reticent about wading into American politics. This comes as the House Republican Study Group formerly headed by U.S. Rep. Jim Banks advocated a shift from Republican advocacy of big business to that of blue-collar workers.

Asked on MSNBC whether he plans to endorse President Joe Biden for reelection, Fain responded, “We’ll make that decision when the time is right. Our endorsements are going to be earned, not freely given.”

He then pivoted to “the other person we talked about, the other candidate,” meaning Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump. In 2020, Trump carried Howard County (home to GM and Stellantis plants in Kokomo) with 65% of the vote, to Biden’s 33%, up from 63% in 2016. In Allen County (GM at Fort Wayne), in 2020 it was Trump 55%-43% over Biden. In Lawrence County (GM at Bedford) Trump carried it with 74%. In Grant County (GM at Marion) Trump won with 68%.

“I’ll never forget in the ’16 race when he spoke about workers in Michigan, union jobs in the Midwest, he said we need to do a rotation in this country," Fain said. "We need to move those jobs to other places that pay less money and those people will be begging for their jobs back. That’s not a person I want as my president.”

UAW negotiations: What Detroit automakers have to give the UAW to get a deal, according to experts

UAW membership woes: UAW membership peaked at 1.5 million workers in the late 70s, here's how it's changed

The Wall Street Journal observed on Tuesday: “Unions aren’t the force in the U.S. that they used to be. That doesn’t mean they can’t pack a punch.”

In the coming days, we’ll find out how hard that punch is.

Brian Howey is a senior writer and columnist for Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.

This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: UAW strike: Will Shawn Fain's different negotiation tactics work?