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UAW president Shawn Fain's swagger has helped unionize the deeply anti-union South

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Right now, autoworkers are doing what long seemed impossible - unionizing in the deeply antiunion South. And one person looming large over this moment is the United Auto Workers' new president, Shawn Fain. Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom reports on how Fain's connection with workers across the nation and his willingness to pick a fight have led to the union's resurgence.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: Shawn Fain's got the look of a bookish schoolteacher - glasses, balding, mild-mannered. But don't be fooled by appearances. He's got cult status. Just last month, when he arrived at a Volkswagen watch party, he got a celebrity's welcome.

(CHEERING)

BISAHA: He shakes hands, signs a poster, and those mild manners become brash when he grabs the mic.

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SHAWN FAIN: Volkswagen family, welcome to the UAW family.

(CHEERING)

BISAHA: Shawn Fain was there to celebrate a big moment in Tennessee. Thousands of workers there had just voted to unionize the VW plant. Fain's next target - a Mercedes plant further south in Alabama. That vote wraps up tomorrow.

This is a big shift after years of Southern autoworkers rejecting the UAW. But now, things are different thanks to Fain, who's been the UAW's leader for just over a year. The 55-year-old has a deep connection with autoworkers. He started off as one of them, working as an electrician at the Kokomo, Ind., Chrysler plant in the '90s. And his auto roots run even deeper.

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.

BISAHA: His grandparents moved to the Midwest to become autoworkers and belong to the same union Fain now leads. As president of the union, he's brought hope and swagger. He's a blue-collar showman, eager to pick a fight. Just look at the historic strikes Fain led and won against the three big automakers in Detroit last fall, says American University professor, Stephen Silvia.

STEPHEN SILVIA: There was a famous YouTube clip that he did where he took the offer from Stellantis...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAIN: I'm going to file it in its proper place...

SILVIA: ...And threw it in the garbage can.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAIN: ...'Cause that's where it belongs - the trash.

BISAHA: Shawn Fain has a talent for theatrics and hardball tactics. People haven't seen this kind of militant attitude from the UAW in decades. That stands in sharp contrast to past leaders who were unable to push back on management demands that workers' pay and benefits be cut to deal with global competition or financial crises. Fain's biggest advantage? - his authenticity when talking to workers...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAIN: As Matthew 17:20 states...

BISAHA: ...Like his faith, regularly quoting the Bible.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAIN: You can say to this mountain...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Move.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Move.

FAIN: ...Move from here to there, and it will move.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yeah.

BISAHA: Though it's not all religious talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAIN: We're not the problem...

BISAHA: Like workers, he's not afraid to swear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAIN: ...Corporate greed is the problem.

(CHEERING)

FAIN: Tick tock, motherf*****.

(CHEERING)

BISAHA: That's all part of Fain's blue-collar draw. But Fain's backing of a different kind of blue could hurt him in the South - his endorsement of President Joe Biden.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAIN: We're going to fight like hell, and we're going to ensure that Joe Biden's the next president so that the working class keeps moving forward.

BISAHA: Fain took his time giving the endorsement. And after all, not all factory workers are Biden supporters, especially in the South. Alabama leaders say Fain and the union support of Biden do not align with workers' politics. Take the state's Secretary of Commerce, Ellen McNair, on Alabama Public Television.

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ELLEN MCNAIR: The efforts that the union support are not necessarily efforts that citizens of the state of Alabama support.

BISAHA: Southern workers have also rejected the UAW in the past because of its history of corruption. But Fain, in his short time as leader, has rebranded the UAW from corrupt to militant and transparent. He's a big reason why assembly worker Quintin North flipped last month from a definite no to a yes for unionizing his VW plant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

QUINTON NORTH: The new leadership has got it. Shawn Fain - he's got it in order. He's really showed what he is. He's for the workers now.

BISAHA: Planting the UAW's flag across the South is ambitious, and Shawn Fain has bigger plans. He's organizing workers across different industries. The long-term goal is using workers' combined power to reshape the economy in their favor. It's a move that could cement him as the leader of the U.S. labor movement.

For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Birmingham, Ala. 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.

Stephan Bisaha
[Copyright 2024 NPR]