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Less than 6 months into his UAW presidency, Shawn Fain has already shaken things up

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain is new to the job. He's been in office less than six months, and now he's leading workers on strike. The work stoppages against the Big Three automakers aren't a surprise, but Fain has taken a far more militant tone with management than recent UAW presidents. He wants workers to get their fair share as car companies enjoy huge profits. NPR's Don Gonyea has this profile of a new union leader already shaking up his industry.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Shawn Fain's roots in the auto industry are deep.

SHAWN FAIN: My grandparents were part of the millions of families who moved to the Midwest to work for auto companies and seek out a better life.

GONYEA: One of those grandparents hired in at Chrysler in 1937, the year the UAW was officially recognized. And Fain likes to keep reminders of his connection to the past.

FAIN: Like my grandfather's pay stub that I carry with me every day. I'm proud to have inherited my grandma's Bible and her faith.

GONYEA: On that latter point, Fain said this week that he finds a lot to relate to in biblical stories where people use their faith to stand up to fear. To say Shawn Fain is an unlikely UAW president is an understatement. He got involved in the union shortly after he hired in as an electrician at a plant in Kokomo, Ind., in the 1990s. Labor analyst Harley Shaiken of UC Berkeley says that part of the story is not so unusual. Fain took on challenges.

HARLEY SHAIKEN: He served an apprenticeship, and he became shop chair in the Chrysler Kokomo foundry. That's among the most demanding jobs in that you're dealing with grievances and issues on the shop floor all the time.

GONYEA: Eventually, Fain landed a staff job at UAW headquarters in Detroit, but he was frustrated by the union's top leadership. The early 2000s brought hard times for the industry as the Great Recession hit. But Fain felt the union gave up too much in those days, too many concessions, including lower wages for new hires. But in his low-level position, he had no recourse. Then came a bombshell - a major corruption scandal for a union with a reputation of being above the board. This is from NPR four years ago.

CHANG: New charges today in a four-year-long FBI corruption investigation of the United Auto Workers Union. Another high-ranking union official was arrested today.

GONYEA: Embezzlement of union dues and other offenses sent two former UAW presidents to prison. A federal monitor was named to oversee union operations. New rules were imposed, including direct elections by members for union leadership. That created an opening for reformers like Fain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAIN: Hello. My name is Shawn Fain, and I'm running for UAW International president.

GONYEA: Fain was seen as a long shot at best but was a surprise finalist in a two-candidate runoff. Then he won that contest by the narrowest of margins. At his swearing in in April, he left no doubt that his presidency would be different.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAIN: Now we're here to come together to ready ourselves for the war against our only - one and only true enemy - multibillion-dollar corporations and employers that refuse to give our members their fair share.

GONYEA: And if rhetoric like that makes some people uncomfortable, Fain says, so be it. Here he is at this year's Labor Day parade in Detroit, where he channeled Malcolm X.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAIN: If we don't get our share of social and economic justice, I can guarantee you one thing. Come September 14, we're going to take action to get it by any means necessary.

(APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: Which brings us to today, Day 1 of the strike Shawn Fain has long prepared for and a strike that will present a whole new set of challenges for this new UAW president. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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