UAW’s confrontational leader makes gains in strike talks, but some wonder: Has he reached too far?

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain raises his fist at a rally on Sept. 15 in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

WAYNE, Mich. — Throughout its 5-week-old strikes against Detroit’s automakers, the United Auto Workers union has cast an emphatically combative stance, reflecting the style of its pugnacious leader, Shawn Fain.

Armed with a list of what even Fain has called “audacious” demands for better pay and benefits, the UAW leader has embodied the exasperation of workers who say they’ve struggled for years while the automakers have enjoyed billions in profits. Yet as the strikes have dragged on, analysts and even some striking workers have begun to raise a pivotal question: Does Fain have an endgame to bring the strikes to a close?

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People with personal ties to Fain say his approach, on the picket lines and at the bargaining table, reflects the bluntly straightforward manner he developed as he rose through the union’s ranks. He is, they say, the right man for the moment.

Others, though, say they worry that Fain set such high expectations for the pay and benefits he can extract from the companies that he risks incurring a personal setback if an eventual deal disappoints union members. A weak settlement could also make it difficult for Fain to expand UAW membership to non-union rivals such as Tesla and Toyota USA — an issue the union has been pushing.

“He’s gotten far more from the companies than anyone, in particular the companies, may have expected,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor emeritus specializing in labor at the University of California Berkeley. “But now is the critical point where you pull the package together. If it isn’t now, when will it be? That is what he’s got to be giving some thought to.”

What began with 7,000 workers at one factory each of Ford, General Motors and Jeep maker Stellantis has grown to 34,000 at six plants and 38 parts warehouses across the country. Officials at all three companies note that they have sweetened pay offers and offered numerous other concessions. In one particularly notable move, GM agreed to bring its new electric vehicle battery factories into the national UAW contract, essentially guaranteeing that workers of the future will belong to the union.

Three auto officials, who asked that they and their companies not be identified so they could speak candidly, say they remain unsure whether Fain has a clear plan to end the strikes or whether he’ll cling to demands that the companies say would be so costly as to jeopardize their ability to invest in the future.

Fain, who in March narrowly won the UAW’s first-ever direct election of a president, had campaigned on promises to end cooperation with the automakers, essentially declaring war on them. He has complained that the highly profitable companies have failed to restore concessions the union members made before and during the 2008-2009 Great Recession, when the industry was teetering.

Some auto executives have accused Fain of performative showmanship and of failing to negotiate seriously. Yet his strategy has so far achieved a number of measurable successes: The companies have offered to raise pay increases from single digits to 23% over four years, restore cost-of-living pay increases and end lower wage tiers for many workers.

Yet obstacles remain. The UAW has demanded 36% general raises; traditional defined-benefit pensions for workers hired after 2007; and pension increases for retirees. Fain has even sought 32-hour work weeks for 40 hours of pay — a demand that even many union workers call unrealistic.

On the picket lines, some say they wonder just how long Fain will keep them out.

“If they can’t come to terms, what happens then?” asked Dawn Krunzel, a team leader at Stellantis’ Jeep complex in Toledo, Ohio, one of the first plants to walk out.

Krunzel said she and her husband had prepared for the strike and aren’t yet worried about their finances, though she said some workers are.

All that Fain is seeking, Krunzel said, is for the UAW to be made whole for the concessions that saved the companies when they were in grave financial danger. Retirees, she said, haven’t had pension increases for years. But she said Fain seems “stuck on what he said out there initially” about pay and other demands.

In a departure from the style of past UAW leaders, Fain has insulted CEOs and publicly revealed the companies’ pay offers. With contempt in his voice, he has likened the UAW’s contract fight to a battle between the beleaguered working class and billionaires. Rejecting the auto officials’ arguments, Fain said the companies can afford to pay more.

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