UAW President Shawn Fain: ‘This isn’t just our fight, it’s everybody’s fight.’
UAW President Shawn Fain, center, with workers at the huge rally on Chicago's South Side last Saturday. | John Bachtell/PW

CHICAGO – “This isn’t just UAW’s fight, it’s everybody’s fight,” declared UAW President Shawn Fain to striking auto workers. “It doesn’t matter if you’re union or non-union, teacher, airline attendant, Starbucks worker. We’re all the same. We want a better life.”

Fain spoke on Oct. 7 to a raucous strike rally of red-shirted autoworkers, their families, and allies that packed the UAW Local 551 union hall, the local representing workers at the Torrence Avenue Ford Assembly Plant. The overflow crowd spilled out into the parking lot under bright sunshine.

Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) president Stacy Davis Gates, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, and other elected officials, Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter, and a leader of the Filipino labor movement joined Fain in solidarity with the striking auto workers.

The “Stand Up” strike against Ford, GM, and Stellantis auto companies, or the Big Three, began on Sept. 15. Members of Local 551 walked out on Sept. 29 under an innovative strategy that expands the strike to new workplaces weekly depending on the status of negotiations.

The UAW demands include a 46% wage increase, a 32-hour week for 40 hours of pay, an end to the two-tier wage system, and restoration of traditional pensions for 145,000 autoworkers.

The Big Three are flush with billions in cash after autoworkers made deep concessions to keep the industry afloat during the Great Recession. Over the last decade, the Big Three made $225 billion in profits. The Big Three raked in $21 billion in profits in the previous six months alone while leaving workers behind.

A key demand of the strike is ensuring a just transition as the auto industry converts to electric vehicles. The UAW fully supports the conversion to a green economy but is worried the auto industry is using the change to eliminate union jobs and radically reduce the workforce through automation because electric cars require far fewer parts. Most EV production occurs in right-to-work “for less” states in the South.

The UAW is demanding that the workers in Big Three plants that produce electric vehicles, batteries, and parts be unionized. The union won a major concession when General Motors agreed to cover EV and electric battery plants under the new contract.

“They’ve said we’d be left behind in the EV transition. We didn’t have to negotiate over the future of the EV market. And we said hell no! We launched our Stand Up strike and won victories for 10s of thousands of our members,” said Fain.

Fain placed the importance of the UAW strike within the arc of organized labor’s long history, including the mass industrial strikes in Chicago in 1886 that were crushed following the Haymarket massacre. Elites ridiculed, mocked, and persecuted workers and the Haymarket martyrs for demanding the eight-hour day just like the UAW is for demanding fair wages and benefits and a just transition to electric vehicles.

But workers eventually won the eight-hour day, and that movement and the Haymarket Massacre are commemorated globally as part of May 1 International Workers Day. “Corporations and their cronies forget one thing – we’ve got the power,” said Fain.

The theme of working-class solidarity and multi-racial unity ran throughout the rally, including full-throated singing of labor standards, “Solidarity Forever,” and “Which Side Are You On.”

“We have the power”

“This strike, the Stand Up strike, is our opportunity to show the working class that we have power when we come together. We can set the agenda for the people. We can make this country our country,” said AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson.

“When we stand united for economic and social justice there’s nothing we can’t do and no mountain that we can’t move. Human solidarity is the solution to the problems we face as a nation and as a world.”

Unity of the multi-racial autoworkers union and the need to build alliances with other unions and democratic forces, particularly the unity of labor and the Civil Rights movement, was also a big rally theme.

“Both of our movements are inextricably intertwined,” said Fain. “As one movement goes, so goes the other. It’s no coincidence that when worker rights go backwards we see an attack on voting rights laws and everything else is going wrong.”

Solidarity greetings from Ka Bong Labog, Chair of the Kilusang Mayo Uno, the largest labor federation in the Philippines, also reflected the UAW’s vision of global working-class unity against transnational corporations. Filipino workers are fighting vicious repression from the Duterte government. Ka Bong Labog told the crowd that 72 trade unionists have been murdered in the Philippines under martial law, including four this year and one on Sept. 29.

John Bachtell/PW

“Corporate greed doesn’t know boundaries or borders,” declared Fain. “And that’s why it’s so important that we unite as a union, a people, a country. We have to unite as a global working class. An attack on workers anywhere is an attack on workers everywhere.”

Many strikers spoke with pride of coming from families of multiple generations of autoworkers. Fain used his family history to share a lesson of global working-class unity. Fain’s grandparents were “economic migrants” from the South who came North to Indiana during the Great Depression leaving behind destitution. Fain’s grandfather was hired at a union Chrysler shop in 1937 in Kokomo.

“And today people want to bash our neighbors to the south, and they want to talk about building walls,” said Fain. “When I look at those people and see economic migrants from Mexico and Central America, or anyplace, I don’t see a stranger to be excluded or rejected. I see destitute human beings in search of a better life that needs to be organized. I see my grandparents. And the only difference between these people and my grandparents is that my grandparents were lucky enough to be born in America. That’s it. Destitution does not know border lines.”

Several speakers pointed out labor’s role in building a transformational movement at the workplace, streets, and ballot box, including electing workers to office. Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson was a leader of the CTU and citywide movement to fund and defend public education before being elected mayor in April. The new mayor is a movement and labor leader, including the historic 2012 teacher’s strike that rocked the city. The CTU helped build a broad transformative coalition, turned to the ballot box, and now governs.

“You all are doing something that is transformational, it’s about unraveling a system of inequities, of disparities, a system that wants to pit workers against workers,” declared Johnson.

“And we’re not going to stand for it. You’re fighting for not just better wages and working conditions. You’re fighting for a better, stronger, safer Chicago. This city, country, world, doesn’t move without workers,” said Johnson.

“A message to the rest of the world: The power of workers will be heard and felt one way or the other,” warned Johnson. “We’ll make it clear you’ll listen to us at the negotiating table, in the streets, and at the ballot box. And if you don’t hear us, we’ll get a contract we’ll send someone who is part of the labor movement to the fifth floor.”

“These companies are just living off the fat of the land. We just want a piece of the American dream too,” said Will Washington, a 12-year assembly line worker at Ford. “We build the cars and they sit in the office and take the profits. We’re just getting back what we deserve.”


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John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.