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UAW strike highlights union president Sean Fine as auto workers picket: NPR

UAW strike highlights union president Sean Fine as auto workers picket: NPR

United Auto Workers President Sean Fine speaks outside UAW Local 900 headquarters across the street from the Ford assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan. The union announced the start of a strike in three factories immediately after midnight on Friday.

Matthew Hatcher/AFP via Getty Images


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United Auto Workers President Sean Fine speaks outside UAW Local 900 headquarters across the street from the Ford assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan. The union announced the start of a strike in three factories immediately after midnight on Friday.

Matthew Hatcher/AFP via Getty Images

UAW President Sean Fine has been in the job less than six months, and has already launched a series of targeted strikes on plants owned by General Motors, Ford and Stellantis. The UAW’s existing contract with local auto companies expired at midnight, when workers at three plants stopped working.

The strikes are no surprise Fine has taken a tougher tone with the administration than his predecessors decades ago. He says it’s the only way to ensure workers get their fair share while car companies continue to enjoy huge profits.

An auto worker outside a Ford Michigan truck plant shows a pin on his fluorescent yellow and orange jacket that reads “I don’t want to strike but I will” on the first day of UAW contract talks with major U.S. automakers on July 19.

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An auto worker outside a Ford Michigan truck plant shows a pin on his fluorescent yellow and orange jacket that reads “I don’t want to strike but I will” on the first day of UAW contract talks with major U.S. automakers on July 19.

Don Junia/NPR

The UAW leader has a long history in the auto industry. Fine often talks about his family members who started working in auto plants in the early days of the UAW: One of his grandfathers was hired by Chrysler in 1937 — the year the UAW was officially recognized. Vine carries one of his grandfather’s old pay stubs in his wallet.

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“My grandparents were part of millions of families who moved to the Midwest to work for car companies and look for a better life,” Fine recalls. “Like my grandfather’s paycheck that I carry with me every day, I am proud to have passed down my grandmother’s Bible and her faith.”

This reference to faith is evident in Finn’s speech about the UAW, its power, and this hit.

He explained this week that he finds much to relate to the biblical stories about using faith to stand up to fear — something he is encouraging his members to do now.

I started at the bottom

To say that Sean Fine is an unlikely president of the UAW is a severe understatement.

Realizing that workers needed to express their opinions, he became involved in a union at the local level in Kokomo, Indiana.

“He’s an electrician. He trained and became a shop foreman at the Chrysler Kokomo foundry. This is among the most demanding jobs in the union since you deal with grievances and issues in the shop all the time,” Harley Chaiken explained. Chaiken is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in work organization.

Eventually, Fine left Kokomo to work as a clerk at the UAW headquarters in Detroit — at Solidarity House — to assist union officials who were already negotiating national contracts.

But Finn was frustrated by the way the union’s top leadership handled the company’s management. Yes, the early 2000s brought tough times for the industry with the financial crisis and the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler, but Fine felt the union was giving up too much, too much. This included a tiered pay system where new employees were paid much less. Originally implemented during the 2007 recession, it continues today.

He was not alone in his views, but such opposition gained no attention in those days. Many workers were happy to have a job. At the time, the UAW, after decades of major victories, backed off its requests from automakers to try to preserve the industry in a time of great upheaval.

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Corruption at the top

Then came the bombshell that would change everything again: a massive corruption scheme involving many of these leaders with whom Fine was at odds.

After a four-year FBI investigation into corruption in the UAW, it found misappropriation of union dues and other crimes that eventually sent two former UAW presidents to prison. Dozens of other union officials were also convicted.

A federal monitor was appointed to oversee union operations, and as part of the consent decree, the UAW was forced to change the way it elected its leadership. Instead of delegates and other union officials selecting the senior officers, members will now vote directly for the senior officers. This left room for union reformers.

In that first ever direct election by members, Sean Vine declared his candidacy.

One worker, one vote, one boss

UAW President Sean Fine speaks with reporters before marching in the Labor Day Parade in Detroit on September 4.

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UAW President Sean Fine speaks with reporters before marching in the Labor Day Parade in Detroit on September 4.

Bill Poliano/Getty Images

He ran on a platform of ending corruption, restoring union concessions 15 years ago, and ending tiered pay rates. He wears T-shirts with “End Tiers” printed on the front during rallies. He promised then that he was ready to use strikes to achieve those goals.

Finn won the election. But at the start of the campaign, he was a longshot at best. Even the union experts did not notice his nomination.

“Although this was the first direct election of UAW officials in the union’s history, he seemed to have little chance of doing so,” recalls union expert Harley Chaiken.

But Fine worked hard, reached out to members directly, and found there was a desire to send a progressive message. He believed people wanted to hear from a candidate who would hold corporations’ feet to the fire and demand that politicians who win union endorsements actually fight for issues important to unions.

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He visited local union halls and stood outside factory gates. He held campaign events on Facebook Live where he would take questions from members who logged in for up to two hours at a time.

It’s starting to gain momentum. In the first ballot, it reached a run-off between two candidates. On the second and final ballot, he won by a narrow majority, with only 477 votes.

Fine was sworn in at a convention in Detroit in April. He explained that his campaign message would be the same under the leadership of the UAW.

“We are now here to come together to prepare ourselves for war against our only real enemy, the multi-billion-dollar corporations and employers who refuse to give our members their fair share,” Fine said at the April conference.

If such rhetoric makes some people uncomfortable, Finn says so be it. His approach, past and present, is to leave no doubt about what he sees as the union’s role: to be the voice and advocate for its members.

He continues to use Facebook Live to reach out directly to union members, including recent sessions where he displayed a trash can full of automakers’ proposals in contract talks.

And this is a message he carries on the road too: he did it at factory gates and union halls. Appropriately, he stood before a crowd at a rally in Detroit on Labor Day and promised to stand strong.

“The UAW is back in the fight and we are ready to stand united to win economic and social justice,” Fine said. “And I have a question for all of you. Are you ready to talk?”