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UAW president Shawn Fain on labor's comeback: "This is what happens when workers get power"

UAW president Shawn Fain on labor's comeback
UAW president Shawn Fain on labor's comeback 09:12

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden paid a visit to the critical battleground state of Michigan. He came to Detroit – Motor City – to court union voters. Mr. Biden had just won the United Auto Workers' endorsement, and he was eager to share the spotlight with UAW president Shawn Fain.

Fain told the crowd, "You know what the hell's going to happen if this man's not president, because we've seen what happens. Labor went backwards."

"You all are the ones that brung me to the dance," Mr. Biden told union workers. "And I never left it."

Fain wants to ramp up the fight over unions and workers' rights, not just with auto companies, but with corporate leaders nationwide.

Asked if he stood with Fain, President Biden said, "Absolutely, positively. Look, I don't have anything against corporations. They've just got to start paying their fair share. The idea we have a thousand billionaires who are paying an average of 8.2 percent in federal tax? Come on, man!"

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain and President Joe Biden, with CBS News chief election & campaign correspondent Robert Costa.  CBS News

Last September, Mr. Biden was the first sitting president to walk a union picket line, showing his support for the unprecedented six-week walk-out at all of the Big Three car makers. He told the workers, "Wall Street didn't build this country; the middle class built this country."

The UAW went on to win historic contracts for 150,000 of its members, making Shawn Fain the standard-bearer for the labor movement's comeback in 2023.

"This is what happens when workers get power," Fain said. "When the workers got this union back, they were able to elect their top leadership for the first time in history, and we saw massive change in a short amount of time, and we're gonna continue to do that."

"You've shaken up the place," said Costa.

"Well, that's what they elected me for."

UAW President Shawn Fain.  CBS News

Fain was the first UAW president elected directly by membership, and within months he led shutdowns on assembly lines at Ford, GM, and Chrysler/Jeep parent company Stellantis. He also broke with tradition: while negotiations usually happened behind closed doors, Fain broadcast updates via Facebook to union members and the world at large. In one video he exclaimed, "All three companies wanted concessions on profit sharing. And we said, 'Hell, no.'"

Fain explained, "It was important to us to be, you know, open and transparent with the membership, not just in bargaining, but it's in everything we're doing."

The union's new contracts not only make up for pay cuts workers took more than 15 years ago during the great recession; they provide a foothold for the union in Detroit's electric vehicle future.

Ford CEO Jim Farley recently warned the contracts will have "a business impact" on the automaker. Fain says impact is what he's all about.

A native of Kokomo, Indiana, the 55-year-old came up the ranks as an electrician, and still carries his grandfather's union pay stub in his pocket. "I remember my grandfather talking about a 110-day strike at Chrysler back in 1950 to get pensions," he said.

"If you would have asked me when I was in high school, 'Are you gonna be an electrician one day?' I would have laughed and like, are you kidding me?"

He recalled the difficulties of being on unemployment: "When my first daughter was born, we were getting WIC. It was a humbling experience. But experiences like that, they laid a groundwork for me for what was important in life and why things mattered and why wages mattered, why having good jobs mattered, why having good benefits mattered."

From Hollywood actors and writers, to hotel and hospital workers, even neighborhood baristas, last year's labor protests were like a dam bursting. From 2021 to 2023 the Big Three automakers made more than $100 billion in profits (according to the Economic Policy Institute), while average auto worker pay has fallen nearly twenty percent from pre-recession levels.

Fain said, "What gave us power at the bargaining table was the company saw how eager members were to go out on strike, and when we were calling plants to go out on strike, that plants that didn't get called were disappointed. It was just a matter of when and how long it was gonna take, because I knew our members had the resolve to make it happen. 

"This is our generation's defining moment," he said.

According to Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, "If unions don't run the kind of campaigns that force employers to come to the table and bargain with them, because the cost of not bargaining with them is greater than the cost of bargaining with them, they aren't going to be able to build their power and organize more workers. Workers aren't stupid; they know that the companies weren't going to give them that bump."

Bronfenbrenner notes the American public sided overwhelmingly with striking autoworkers: "They had given huge concessions in 2007. Now the companies were making money and they weren't sharing it. They had risked their lives during COVID. And so, [Fain] did a very good job of getting the public to see those issues. This was about something that was fair, and this was just, and that we're living in a time where corporations are taking too much."

Fain may come across as mild-mannered, but he also rails against the "billionaire class," and has even worn T-shirts that say "Eat the Rich."

"I don't think billionaires should exist," he said. "No one needs that much money. I think it's inhumane. Pick any city, walk around, you know, you see people starving, people without basic necessities. There's no excuse for that. And it's not because people are lazy or don't want to work. The billionaires that keep amassing more and more wealth, so they can build rocket ships and do whatever the hell they want to do, that does nothing for humanity."

"Your critics say that's class warfare," said Costa.

"Yeah, class warfare has been going on in this country for the last 40 years – the billionaire class has been taking everything and leaving the working class with nothing," Fain replied.  "Whenever working class people ever step up and say, 'This is wrong, we want it to stop,' all of a sudden, Oh, it's class warfare. It's the end of the world."

If there is a labor war being waged in America, the front lines are in the non-union factories of the South and Midwest. Volkswagen's plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, builds their latest electric cars – and it's a top target of UAW organizers.

Fain told workers in Tennessee, "When the company uses fear, we're gonna come back with facts. And these are the facts: You know, Volkswagen made $78 billion since 2020 in profit. They paid out $24 billion in dividends to corporate executives and shareholders. The CEO of Volkswagen makes $12 million a year."

United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain speaks outside Volkswagen's plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  CBS News

The UAW has tried twice before in the past decade to organize in Chattanooga. What's changed since then? After the UAW's recent victories, non-union automakers (including Honda, Toyota, Hyundai and VW) offered raises, too. But the extra pay came without the union's benefits or job protections.

Fain explained coming into a more hostile territory: "We don't ever rest," he said. "Workers deserve justice."

"Sunday Morning" was there in December when workers tried to petition management for a meeting with organizers.

In a statement to "Sunday Morning," Volkswagen Group of America said: "Volkswagen is proud of our 5,500 employees who power our world-class assembly plant in Chattanooga. Our culture has been built through frequent, transparent, and two-way dialogue with our people. We respect their democratic right to determine who should represent their interests in the workplace without interference, intimidation, or misinformation."

But Volkswagen worker Shaun Lawler says skepticism of the UAW runs deep in the community. When asked how his family views unions, he replied, "They don't see it as a good opportunity; they see layoffs."

What do they call unions? "They call them communist," Lawler said.

Still, after the UAW's success last year, 13-year Volkswagen employee Vicky Holloway says the union's time has come. "I really think we have a chance this time," she said. "Unless your eyes are just closed and your ears, and you just don't hear anything, then you realize that we do need a union."

The UAW now says a union vote in Chattanooga is approaching. It will be another defining moment for Shawn Fain – and for the American labor movement.

"You know, organized labor led the way for the American dream," he said. "And that's fallen by the wayside over the last 40 years. And it is our obligation to humanity to change that."

And, he adds, he's not going to give up: "Not at all. That's the mission."

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Story produced by Ed Forgotson. Editor: Ed Givnish. 

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