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Kentucky Lantern: UAW President Shawn Fain touts solidarity as Kentucky AFL-CIO prepares to choose a new leader

Berry Craig
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LEXINGTON —  United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain told Kentucky union members Monday night that the working class is fed up with “being left behind” and called on labor to challenge massive income disparity and “the billionaire class.”

“The one equalizer in all this is organized labor, and we have an obligation to humanity to lead this fight.” 

Fresh off a strike that ended in record contracts with the Detroit Three automakers, Fain spoke to the Kentucky State AFL-CIO’s 35th biennial convention, held at a Lexington hotel about 15 minutes from the world’s largest Toyota manufacturing facility in Georgetown.

Fain told a packed banquet hall that after hearing United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts’ afternoon speech, “I had to cut out of here because I drove up the road” to “visit with some of our workers at Toyota Kentucky. And, you know, they want their fair share.” 

The UAW under Fain is stepping up efforts to organize nearly 150,000 workers at the Japanese automaker and other nonunion  plants, especially in the South. A number of foreign car companies, including Toyota, raised pay for their U.S. workers after the UAW contract was announced. The UAW deal included wage increases of at least 25%, the return of cost-of-living adjustments, an end to tiered salaries, annual bonuses for retirees and a role for the union in the rollout of electric vehicle manufacturing.

Fain said he told the workers in Georgetown that Toyota has raised its CEO’s pay by 125% in two years and made $90 billion in profits the last three years “on the backs of the workers.”

“That UAW bump you just received, they can take it away tomorrow” without a union contract, Fain said he told them.

Fain, who narrowly unseated the incumbent UAW president in March in the first election in which members directly chose their leader, spoke to the Kentucky audience in personal and historic terms. 

He said his grandparents moved from a farm near Nicholasville in 1937 during the Great Depression to seek automaking jobs in Indiana, where they joined the UAW. His great grandfather was a coal miner in East Tennessee, who was blackballed from work for supporting the union, Fain said. 

“I always feel at home in Kentucky.” 

Fain called on the Democratic Party to “get focused on issues that matter to working class people,” including health care and retirement insecurity, especially among workers whose retirement depends on investing in 401(k) plans.

He said the UAW initially withheld its endorsement of Democratic President Joe Biden, who ended up supporting striking autoworkers. Fain drew laughter when he said that while Biden “was out there on our picket line supporting UAW members, the other guy was in a nonunion plant having a union rally,” a reference to former president Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner for president next year.

“It’s not a coincidence, you know, in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s as labor unions increased, that gap stayed small between the rich and poor. Since that time, as union numbers have dwindled, we’ve seen that gap grow massively. And that’s not a coincidence to me. It is done by design. I mean, the wealthy people know what they’re doing … and they divide the hell out of us on every issue they can, and they walk away with the loot while we’re fighting over guns or whatever the hell other issue we got to fight about.”

Fain ended by quoting scripture from the book of Ecclesiastes about the power of solidarity.

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, also spoke, saying her union is in the process of organizing 50,000 Delta Airlines workers.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Kentucky AFL-CIO is expected to elect Dustin T. Reinstedler its president, succeeding longtime labor leader Bill Londrigan, who announced in September that he would not seek reelection. Reinstedler is an officer and field representative of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 4 in Kentucky and Indiana. 

The AFL-CIO is a federation of 60 national and international labor unions