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Shawn Fain Speaks for the Pissed-Off


Conventional wisdom says that Trump’s base is primarily made up of pissed-off white people.

We’re told that they’re pissed-off at their jobs disappearing, at their towns being hollowed out, at the drugs decimating their communities, at working three jobs to stay afloat, and at the nagging feeling that people are laughing at them.

We’re told that Trump speaks for these people, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. They only think he does.

Trump waves shiny objects in their faces. He makes glittering promises, and he offers up colorful scapegoats they can blame for their misery. But he’s never once offered them anything real.

What Shawn Fain is offering is real:

Twice the money they’re making now. Better benefits, better working conditions, better job protections, more paid time off, regular cost-of-living adjustments, and a piece of the company’s profits they can put away for retirement.

As President of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), Fain knows that these are the things that turn lives around. And he’s putting them all on the table.

Last year, when he brought the Big Three automakers to their knees, it was like a light was switched on. Suddenly, the moribund American labor movement was back in business.

Then last Friday, the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted to unionize. Three-quarters of its workers voted ‘yes’ to representation by the UAW. It’s the first time in living memory a carmaker in the South has gone union.

But it won’t be the last. Organizing efforts are also underway at Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, Toyota, Honda, and others. The target plants are all in red states that have resisted unionization for generations. And a growing number of their working-class citizens are pissed-off at how long they’ve been pissed-off.

Fain has made the UAW a force to be reckoned with, and red-state governors are losing their shit over it.

In the run-up to the Volkswagen vote last week, six of those governors, all the usual suspects, circled the wagons and hauled out all the old lame lies. How workers will lose their jobs. How factories will leave the state. How the state will be less competitive. How Southern “values” will be under threat.

What the governors failed to mention was that the ink was barely dry on the massive Big Three contract, when all those red-state, nonunion car factories, mostly foreign-owned, handed out significant raises — the first their workers had seen in years.

Let’s underline that. The other carmakers saw what the UAW had accomplished, and immediately gave everyone a wage bump. This was not from the goodness of their hearts. They knew their pay scales were now embarrassingly out of whack with the union shops up North.

So, short-term, they’re buying off their workers, but long-term they know something’s got to give. They know they’ve had it too good for too long, and change is coming.

Up next, Alabama. As we speak, the date is being set for a vote to unionize the Mercedes-Benz plant outside Tuscaloosa.

Workers there say they want to end the “Alabama discount,” by which they mean the state’s practice of attracting large companies with “incentives” like low taxes, low wages, and weak regulation. It’s a discount that gets paid out of the tax base, which translates to fewer services, poorer schools, crumbling infrastructure, inadequate safety laws, and a general decline in living standards.

When the governor raised her insipid objections to the unionization drive, Fain did not mince words:

“Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey recently dared to say that the economic model of the South is under attack. She’s damn right it is! It’s under attack because workers are fed up with getting screwed.”

Word spreads fast among the screwed. Workers can now google the wages being paid by other companies in other states — and under other state governments — for doing the same jobs they do. Envy can lead to anger.

Fain speaks the language of the angry, but he doesn’t come across as especially angry himself. He’s a natural communicator, a down-to-earth front man with a seriously aggressive agenda, and he gives a good interview.

One of his recurring themes is that the “Billionaire Class” and the “Corporate Class” — two terms he uses interchangeably — have rigged the system for too long. It’s obscene, he says, that a handful of people have more money than the rest of the country put together. This strikes a chord with people who are, in effect, slaves to their jobs.

Fain is standing in a new place, where the know-nothing politics of red-state governments rub up against the reality of day-to-day existence in those states. The resulting friction could have huge political implications, as people who have good jobs mix with people who don’t.

The UAW is counting on a ripple effect. Good jobs mean more money to spread through the local economy. Which means better schools, new businesses, stronger communities, and more reasons for new people to move in. The better the wages in the plant, the more prosperous the town. Red-state Republicans somehow have a problem with that.

Fain and the UAW have been fortunate to have a kindred spirit in Joe Biden, and they’ve gone all-in for him. Not only do they endorse him, they openly condemn Trump.

That said, the UAW is organizing in states that Trump won by double digits in 2020. The workforces they’re trying to unionize are surely riddled with Trump voters.

This doesn’t seem to faze Fain. He’s heard the grumbling about the Biden endorsement, but that didn’t stop the Chattanooga plant from voting overwhelmingly to unionize. As for Trump voters in his rank-and-file, he’s letting the changes on the shop floor do the talking.

Of course, this is still early days. Lots can go wrong, with lots of dirty fighting still to come.

It should be said that the German carmakers, VW and Mercedes, are relatively soft targets. Worldwide, most German-owned plants are already unionized, so they’ll learn to live with the UAW. The Japanese and Koreans won’t be so easy. And unionizing Tesla, over the fascistic objections of Elon Musk, will be an epic battle.

But all these companies know Shawn Fain is coming for them. They know he’s riding a wave of pro-union ferment. They know he’s giving voice to the chronically pissed-off. And they can surely hear that voice getting louder.


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