NEW YORK — United Auto Workers recently-elected President Shawn Fain isn’t afraid to advocate for his 146,000 members as the union and the country’s three major carmakers look to broker a labor agreement.
Fain, 55, may have the power to cripple Detroit’s assembly lines — but he’s also not afraid to invoke a higher authority throughout the negotiating process.
In fact, Fain has mixed his Christian beliefs with his labor rhetoric the past few weeks. When addressing thousands of union members last week, Fain urged them to have faith as they prepared to go on strike.
“For many of us, who have yet to see our union fight hard and win big, it is hard to imagine what that would look like,” he said. “Making bold demands and organizing to fight for them is an act of faith. It’s an act of faith in each other. Yes, these corporations are mountains, but together we can make them move.”
He initially led workers on strike at three plants, one each by Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. It marked the first time in UAW history that the union has picketed all three companies at the same time.
Strike Expands To More Plants
Fain said Friday that the union would expand the strike against GM and Stellantis across 38 locations in 20 states.
“This expansion will take our fight nationwide. We will be everywhere, from California to Massachusetts. From Oregon to Florida. And we will keep going, keep organizing and keep expanding the standup strike as necessary,” he said during a news conference.
As a result, another 5,600 workers joined the strike — in addition to the 13,000 of the 146,000 members that began the work stoppage a week ago.
The union seeks wage increases of 36% over four years, but carmakers have said they can’t afford to meet the union’s demands because they need to invest profits in a costly transition from gas-powered vehicles to electric ones.
The most-recent escalation excludes Ford, which the UAW said has made strides to negotiate a more favorable contract. But Fain said workers remain on strike against a Ford facility in Wayne, Michigan, one of the three the union struck last week in its initial move.
“Across the country, people are going to know that the UAW is ready to stand up for our communities and ready to stand up against corporate greed,” he said. “And I know more of you are ready to walk.”
Keeping the Faith
It’s unclear what denomination Fain is – both he or the union won’t say – but he does make it a habit to travel with a Bible given to his grandmother for Christmas in 1933 when she lived in an orphanage.
“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,” Fain said during a recent video address to members, holding up the tattered black book.
Fain “has a style, a personality, an approach that is different from what has been used in the past,” said Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Fain, a UAW negotiator in 2009 during the Chrysler bankruptcy, is a 29-year member of the union, according to the union’s website, and hails “from a family of UAW members, Shawn got his start with the union in 1994 as an electrician for Chrysler at Kokomo Casting Plant in his hometown of Kokomo, Indiana. Two of his grandparents were UAW GM retirees and one grandfather started at Chrysler in 1937, the year the workers joined the union.”
While unions are largely secular and politically progressive organizations, Fain’s use of religious language to galvanize his union has, according to the New Republic, “ignited conversations about the intersection of faith and labor activism in America.”
He told UAW members how his daily Christian devotional reading on “fear and faith” resonated with the union’s mission. In doing so, Fain quoted Matthew 17:20-21 in a broadcast message: “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move — and nothing will be impossible for you.”
UAW’s membership is made up largely of Catholics and Protestants, groups that have a history of labor activism in this country.
“I’m looking at that scripture — have faith and move that mountain,” Jeff Ringer, an expert on religious rhetoric at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, told Axios. “From an American protestant, evangelical perspective, you hear that invoked all the time in evangelical circles.”
While evangelical Christianity has become identified with right-wing politics, especially since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Fain’s use of faith could broaden the UAW’s blue-collar constituency who has increasingly voted Republican in the last few presidential cycles.
But Fain is no fan of the former real estate mogul-turned-president, saying “people like Donald Trump” shouldn’t hold political office.
Clemente Lisi is the executive editor at Religion Unplugged. He is the author of “The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event” and previously served as deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and a longtime reporter at The New York Post. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.
Produced in association with Religion Unplugged