Shawn Fain at Labor Notes: Unions are the arsenal of democracy
UAW President Shawn Fain visits striking UAW Local 551 workers outside a Ford assembly center in Chicago. | John J. Kim/AP

CHICAGO – Delegates at the Labor Notes Conference here last weekend took time out to cheer the historic breaking of the anti-union stranglehold on the deep South by the organizing victory of the United Auto Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Delegates watching the vote count at a bar in Rosemont near the convention hotel jumped, cheered, and sang “Solidarity Forever” when the tally was announced.

New UAW President Shawn Fain—the union’s first-ever popularly elected president—attributed the victory to the activism and role of the workers at the plant. “It’s a united working class is how we’re going to win!” Fain told the Labor Notes crowd in the conference’s closing address.

“We don’t win by playing defense or reacting to things. We don’t win by playing nice with the boss. We don’t win by telling our members what to do, what to say, or how to say it. We win by giving working-class people the tools, inspiration, and courage to stand up for themselves.”

One of the best-received speeches was given by the UAW’s Shawn Fain who described the working class as the “arsenal of democracy.” He described how it was union workers in Detroit who, during World War II, built the “weapons needed to defeat the fascists.” And he noted how the “arsenal for democracy” he described will be key to defeating the fascist threats faced by the nation today.

“Are you ready to stand up?” Fain asked the crowd, using the title of the “Stand Up” strikes his union led against the Big Three auto workers last year.

“Something is happening in this country, something we haven’t seen in a long time. The working class is standing up. Less than 48 hours ago, 4,000 workers in Chattanooga, Tenn. did what many said was impossible. Those workers stood up for themselves and that’s how we win and they voted for a union.”

He mentioned the next targets of the UAW in its drive to bring an end to the anti-union regime in the deep South. He noted that Mercedes workers in Tuscaloosa, Alabama will be voting in the second week of May and that 7,000 Daimler workers in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia will vote on a union soon after that.

“With our victory at VW auto workers around the country are speaking with one voice now. They’re telling corporate America ‘Time Is Up!’ “, Fain declared.

Fain said that as a young union activist ready to fight the boss he was “stunned to find myself with a union leadership that had no interest in that fight. Two years ago I put my faith in the membership and decided to run for office. We’re putting an end to company unionism, an end to concessions, an end to corruption, an end to tiers.

We put the fight straight to the companies; we put forward very bold demands and we were laughed at. We kept the companies guessing. We won things no one thought possible – like the re-opening of a plant – in Belvedere after decades of closures. The electric battery industry had been seen as a race to the bottom- starting pay was $16/hour. We went after that, we went after tiers, we shortened the progression to full pay, we won back COLA, ended the abuse of temps. But more than anything, what we won in that contract was we got our union back. We put membership in charge. We remembered how to fight and win

“The stand-up strike was not just about the Big Three. It was about the whole working class – proving one thing – the working class can win.

“The UAW was responsible for building the arsenal for democracy that won that war (the war against fascism, World War II). Now We are facing a new enemy, a new authoritarian threat. It’s not a far-away country threat – it’s right here at home in our workplaces and that enemy is corporate greed.”

“Today from Chattanooga, Tenn. to Chicago we say ‘hell no.’ We say the working class is the arsenal of democracy and the workers are the liberators. It’s us, the united working class is how we’ll win.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

Roberta Wood
Roberta Wood

Roberta Wood is a retired member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Wood was a steelworker in South Chicago, an officer of Steelworkers Local 65, and founding co-chair of the USWA District 31 Women's Caucus. She was previously Secretary-Treasurer of the Communist Party. Currently, she serves as a Senior Editor of People's World.