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New union head for auto workers promises militant contract bargaining and activism


For almost a century, the United Auto Workers Union has been one of the nation's most important labor voices, a force in collective bargaining and in U.S. politics. More recently, though, the UAW's reputation has taken a hit with declining membership, contract concessions and a corruption scandal that seriously damaged the union's reputation. That is what faces new UAW President Shawn Fain, elected in the first ever direct vote by union members. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Shawn Fain had been in office barely 24 hours when he took the stage at a UAW convention in Detroit last week.


SHAWN FAIN: It's a new day in the UAW.

GONYEA: Elected UAW president by a slim margin, Fain promised a much more militant approach at the bargaining table and urged delegates to unify after the hard-fought union election.


FAIN: We're here to come together to ready ourselves for the war against our only one and only true enemy - multibillion dollar corporations and employers that refuse to give our members their fair share.


GONYEA: The combative tone was embraced by this delegate, second-generation auto worker Jamante Washington, who works at the Detroit plant that builds the hybrid Jeep Grand Cherokee. Washington was hired 12 years ago and, as such, was paid a lower wage and does not get the pension that more senior unionized employees get.

JAMANTE WASHINGTON: It was negotiated as a way to save the companies and our livelihood, OK? Then it became a way of life. And every time we go to ask for it back, oh, we can't afford this. We can't afford that.

GONYEA: Washington adds it's something worth going on strike over. Whether it comes to that remains to be seen. The UAW's new leadership also makes clear its plan to become a major player in politics once again. That's why Michigan's Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, spoke to the gathering of delegates, a measure of the UAW's traditional importance in this state. She was cheered for signing just days earlier legislation repealing Michigan's so-called right-to-work law, which was put in place to weaken unions.


GRETCHEN WHITMER: But we cannot for one second take our foot off the accelerator. We cannot assume it is over and things are just going to be, you know, sunny and bright for anyone who is working hard in this state. We've got to continue to fight for these rights.

GONYEA: The UAW also works the political terrain, knowing that Republican Donald Trump made significant strides in cutting into the Democrats' edge with union voters. Fain was asked about that at a news conference.


FAIN: I'm not going to get in - I guess I won't get into commenting on what I think about certain candidates right now or certain people in power. But I'll just say that, yes, we're going to be a lot more active and a lot more direct with our elected leaders and what we expect.

GONYEA: None of this will be easy, according to John Russo, a labor expert at Georgetown University who is himself a former auto worker. Russo says the UAW is dealing with, among other challenges, a changing economy and changes in manufacturing processes, including the coming widespread electrification of automobiles.

JOHN RUSSO: They're facing an array of serious economic and political issues that sort of undermines what they're trying to do. They're swimming upstream, and that's going to continue for the near term.

GONYEA: Good or bad, a better-than-expected contract makes finding unity on political issues easier, but not meeting members' expectations could have the opposite effect. Such is the road ahead for the new UAW leadership. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF BON IVER SONG, "PERTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.