DETROIT—Two men who began their careers on factory floors are competing to lead the 373,000 members of the United Auto Workers, a union that helps set standards for wages across the nation’s manufacturing sector.
It will be the first-ever direct election of a UAW president in the union’s 88-year history.
The election pits the 57-year-old incumbent, Ray Curry, who started his career on the assembly line at a Freightliner truck plant in North Carolina, against Shawn Fain, 54, who began as an electrician at a Chrysler metal casting plant in Kokomo, Indiana.
Curry and Fain were the top two finishers in a five-candidate race held in December for a four-year term as UAW president. Because neither man won more than 50% of the vote, they were placed in a runoff election, with ballot counting to start March 1. Separate runoff races are being held for two other UAW positions—a vice president and a regional director.
Until this year, the leaders of the UAW had always been chosen by delegates to a convention rather than by rank-and-file union members. But in the aftermath of a bribery-and-embezzlement scandal involving union officials, members voted to hold a direct election this time.
Candidates who have positioned themselves in opposition to the established union leadership won six of 14 seats on the International Executive Board and could end up capturing as many as eight seats.
Under Curry’s leadership for the past 19 months, the UAW has taken a more aggressive stance in labor talks, having gone on strike against Volvo Trucks, John Deere, the University of California and CNHI, a maker of agricultural and construction equipment.
In forthcoming contract negotiations, Curry and Fain have each said they would seek to restore traditional pensions, which, beginning in 2007, were replaced by a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan for new hires. Both also want cost-of-living and general pay raises and an end to differing tiers of wages and benefits for workers doing the same jobs, depending on their length of service.
Here’s where the candidates stand on some of the issues, edited for length and clarity:
What have you done, or would you do, to change the union after the scandal?
Fain: Let’s look at the reform of this union. The Curry slate didn’t want every member to have a right to vote in this election. They want to keep the same tired system where the International Executive Board controls the convention, and they control the election. We’ve been a one-party state for longer than I’ve been alive. A true reformist would want the membership to have a right to vote in the election. These guys still ascribe to the company-union philosophy (where company and union are business partners). The company continually violates our agreements. There’s no action taken to stop it. They are not reformers.
Curry: I came off the assembly floor. I’ve had an opportunity to serve on a staff in a 12-state region in the South. I bring a wealth of knowledge and experience, having served as secretary-treasurer, leading reforms that started in 2019. I was the one who put in place the request for proposals with vendors for top-to-bottom reviews. We were responsive to the membership. We’ve offered training. We want to have the members fully engaged. All those pieces are transparent and will move us forward. We’re not just changing policies and rules. We’re also listening to their voice and going to give them a forum to have discussion with the leadership.
What do you want in contract talks with Detroit automakers?
Curry: Members would like to maintain current provisions, but they want improvements. Those include wage increases. We’ve got to have buying power that’s greater than 2019 in 2023. We’re also looking at reinstatement of cost-of-living allowance. We got that in the truck, defense and aerospace sectors. Our members are really demanding it. In a number of other sectors, we have seen pension increases back for active and retired. We’d also like to talk about those who are post-2007 (hiring date) in the auto sector who do not have a pension. They’ve got traditional 401(k) and savings plans. When we talk about tiers, there’s levels of health insurance, levels of retirement, post-retirement benefits that we believe need to be level for all employees.
Fain: Go back to bankruptcy. The government basically mandated “these were the cuts.” Those weren’t to be forever. They were for companies to get back on their feet. The companies got back, and they’ve done amazing ever since. But our workers have been still going like this (motioning horizontally). When those two things don’t go hand-in-hand, there’s a problem, and the workers are fed up. Ending tiers is an issue everywhere in our union. People that have pensions. That don’t have post-retirement health care. It’s taking care of retirees who have been neglected for the last 15 years. Our active workers. With the cost of living rising, we have to do better. Look at what ending pensions has done. We used to set the standard.
Will there be more strikes if you’re elected?
Fain: That’s up to the companies. Our job is to fight for our members. It’s not to fight for the International Executive Board. It’s to prepare our members for whatever action we have to take to protect job security. Job security comes first. Would we strike? Yes, we would. But that’s going to be up to the companies if they don’t treat our workers fairly.
Curry: I see that happening when the members’ demands aren’t being met. We’re going to be rational in our conversation. We will utilize all the meeting time up to whatever contractual deadline that we have. But when the members believe that the process isn’t moving forward in their best interest, I will be supportive of authorizing strikes.
Stellantis wants to close the plant in Belvidere, Illinois. Can it be saved?
Curry: I wasn’t involved early in the process because of not having the assignment and not being president at the time. But when the announcement came about, we immediately started having conversations with the corporation. We also started raising awareness nationally. I had a chance to talk to (Stellantis CEO) Carlos Tavares. I alerted (President Joe Biden) that we had a product in a U.S. state, and the future-generation product for 2023 was to be built in Mexico. We believe we’re making a good business case why Belvidere survives. We’re going to keep fighting.
Fain: That’s the problem with our leadership: They’re too reactive instead of being proactive in addressing these things up front. When you know that three years ago, and there’s product coming, the leadership should have taken action to secure that work, and they failed to do so. We have language in our contract that says the companies will not spin off, split off, sell or close or idle any plant. And there’s only a couple exceptions, which are an act of God, a severe economic downturn. That’s not the case. A strike is not the only option.
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