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Historic UAW election picks reform leader who vows more aggressive approach to auto negotiations

Supporters wave signs during an address at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 5, 2012 on the second day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC).

Mladin Antonov | AFP | Getty Images

DETROIT – United Auto Workers members have ousted their president in the union’s first direct election, ushering in a new era for the prominent organized labor group ahead of negotiations later this year with the Detroit automakers.

The union’s new leader will be Shawn Fain, a member of the “UAW Members United” reform group and local leader for a Stellantis parts plant in Indiana. He came out ahead in a runoff election by hundreds of votes over incumbent Ray Curry, who was appointed president by union leaders in 2021.

Fain, in a statement Saturday, thanked UAW members who voted in the election. He also hailed the results as a historic change in direction for the embattled union, which he says will take a “more aggressive approach” with its employers.

“This election was not just a race between two candidates, it was a referendum on the direction of the UAW. For too long, the UAW has been controlled by leadership with a top-down, company union philosophy who have been unwilling to confront management, and as a result, we’ve seen nothing but concessions, corruption, and plant closures,” Fain said.

Curry, who previously protested the narrow election results, said in a statement that Fain will be sworn in on Sunday and that he is “committed to ensuring that this transition is smooth and without disruptions.”

“I want to express my deep gratitude to all UAW staff, clerical support, leaders and most of all, our union’s active and retired members for the many years of support and solidarity. It has been the honor of my life to serve our great union,” Curry said.

More than 141,500 ballots were cast in the runoff election that also included two other board positions, a 33% increase from last year’s direct election in which neither of the presidential candidates received 50% or more of the votes.

The election was overseen by a federal monitor, who confirmed the results Saturday night. The results had been delayed several weeks due to a run-off election as well as the close final count.

Shawn Fain, candidate for UAW president, is in a run-off election with incumbent Ray Curry for the union’s highest-ranking position.

Jim West for UAW Members United

Fain’s election adds to the UAW’s largest upheaval in leadership in decades, as a majority of the union’ s International Executive Board will be made up of first-time directors who are not part of the “Administration Caucus” that has controlled the union for more than 70 years.

Fain and other members of his leadership slate ran on the promise of “No corruption. No concessions. No tiers.” The last being a reference to a tiered pay system implemented by the automakers during recent negotiations that members have asked to be removed.

The shuffle follows a yearslong federal investigation that uncovered systemic corruption involving bribery, embezzlement, and other crimes among the top ranks of the UAW.

Thirteen UAW officials were convicted as part of the probe, including two past presidents. As part of a settlement with the union in late 2020, a federal monitor was appointed to oversee the union and the organization held a direct election where each member has a vote, doing away with a weighted delegate process.

For investors, UAW negotiations with the Detroit automakers are typically a short-term headwind every four years that result in higher costs. But this year’s negotiations are anticipated to be among the most contentious and important in recent memory.

Fain has said the union will seek benefit gains for members, advocating for the return of a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, as well as raises and job security.

The change in the UAW comes against the backdrop of a broader organized labor movement across the country, a pro-union president and an industry in the transition to all-electric vehicles.

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