“In reality, we’re all on the same side of the war against the working class,” Shawn Fain said in a wide-ranging speech on Monday.
United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain argued that the current fear-mongering around the U.S. border with Mexico is an attempt by the wealthy and political elites to divide workers.
The remarks came in a wide-ranging speech at the UAW’s National Community Action Program Conference in Washington, D.C. on Monday, in which Fain repeated the union’s call for a cease-fire in Gaza, confirmed plans for a 2028 general strike, and laid out a vision for a wider U.S. political movement led by the working class.
“They try to divide us nationally by nationality,” Fain said. “Right now, we have millions of people being told that the biggest threat to their livelihood is migrants coming over the border. The threat we face at the border isn’t from the migrants. It’s from the billionaires and the politicians getting working people to point the finger at one another, when in reality, we’re all on the same side of the war against the working class.”
“We fight for a political program that serves humanity, not the inhumane interest of the wealthy and corporate greed.”
Fain added that the issue of immigration was personal to him because his grandparents had traveled between states to get jobs as autoworkers and become UAW members.
“They went somewhere else to find a better life. That’s all these people are trying to do,” Fain said.
The UAW has emerged as a major leader in a reinvigorated U.S. labor movement after its “stand up” strike won historic contracts against the Big Three automakers in 2023. As part of the final deal, the UAW negotiated a shared April 30, 2028 expiration date for all three contracts, opening up the possibility of a May Day strike. Fain has previously called on other unions to coordinate their contract expiration dates for the same date to allow the working class to “flex our collective muscles.”
Fain repeated and strengthened that call on Monday, endorsing a general strike.
The U.S. has not seen a mass, cross-union walkout in decades, according to The Guardian, and Fain argued that this was a mistake.
“We have to pay for our sins of the past. Back in 1980 when Reagan at the time fired PATCO [Port Authority Transit Corporation] workers, everybody in this country should have stood up and walked the hell out,” Fain said. “We missed the opportunity then, but we’re not going to miss it in 2028. That’s the plan. We want a general strike. We want everybody walking out just like they do in other countries.”
Fain said the union’s success in 2023 gave him hope.
“We shocked the billionaires,” he said, “and you know what that tells me? That if we can do things we’ve never tried before as a new UAW, we can win things we’ve never won before.”
He also pointed to the 75% support the strike had from the U.S. population.
“Our issues are the public’s issues,” he said.
Fain said that the union’s fight was larger than just its own contracts. For example, he noted that the union had failed to end the two-tiered system for retirement benefits. Those hired after 2007 receive a 401(k) with matching contributions instead of a pension and post-retirement healthcare, as The Detroit News pointed out. Fain argued that the UAW could resolve this in part by broadening the fight for retirement security to include the whole nation, though he said they would continue to push the Big Three as well.
“Either the Big Three guarantee retirement security for workers who give their lives to these companies or an even bigger player does: the federal government,” he said.
He added: “We can’t just fight for good contracts for our members alone. We fight for a society—from union contracts, to federal legislation, to our political system as a whole, that serves the working class and poor, that serves the people. We fight for a political program that serves humanity, not the inhumane interest of the wealthy and corporate greed.”
He also criticized the wealthy for using issues like gender identity, sexual orientation, race, and nationality to divide the working class, and it was in this context that he criticized the scapegoating of immigrants. He also emphasized the UAW’s history of backing civil rights and environmental justice.
“We have to, as a union, lead in the area of environmental safety,” Fain said. “It does no good to bargain for another dollar an hour or another week’s vacation, if on the vacation you take you can’t swim in the lake, because it’s dirty, and you can’t breathe clean air.”
Further, he emphasized the importance of international solidarity. The UAW was also the largest union at the time to officially demand a cease-fire in Israel’s war on Gaza, a demand he repeated Monday to chants of “cease-fire now!”
“We don’t stop our fight for justice at the workplace. We don’t stop our fight for justice because it’s not the right time. When and where there’s a war, whether it’s in Vietnam or Gaza, we call for peace,” Fain said.
The UAW has not yet endorsed a candidate for president in the 2024 election. Fain criticized former President Donald Trump on Monday, telling reporters he was “pretty much contrary to everything we stand for,” according to The Guardian. But he did not endorse his presumptive opponent President Joe Biden.
“We have to take the issues that matter to the working class and poor, and we have to make our political leaders stand up with us,” Fain said. “Our message in doing this is simple: Support our cause, or you will not get our endorsement.”
Olivia Rosane is a staff writer for Common Dreams.