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UAW president makes surprise visit to Kentucky Toyota workers. | Opinion

Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers union, listened Monday to a fiery speech by United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts on the importance of unity in organizing for better pay and working conditions.

Then he headed up I-75 to preach the same to Toyota workers at the company’s plant in Georgetown, a non-union shop just over an hour away from the unionized Ford Kentucky Truck Plant that proved instrumental in the UAW’s efforts to reach historic agreements with some of the biggest car makers in the world.

“They’re gonna hit you with fear,” he recounted later that evening at the Kentucky AFL-CIO convention at Embassy Suites. “They’re going to tell you everything they can tell you to keep you non-union.”

Fain, fresh off the biggest win for the UAW in recent history with the Big Three automakers, said he gave the Toyota workers a script to work from.

“The Big Three made $250 billion in the last decade,” Fain said. “Toyota alone made $265.3 billion in the last decade, 90 billion in the last three years. Toyota CEO pay in the last two years went up 125%. So as I told those workers, when they hit you with this b----s---, hit them back. Ask them why CEO pay went up 125% in two years. Ask them why they can’t share $90 billion in profits in the last three years?”

Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, shakes hands with UAW President Shawn Fain at the annual AFL-CIO conference on Monday evening. (Photo by Berry Craig)
Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, shakes hands with UAW President Shawn Fain at the annual AFL-CIO conference on Monday evening. (Photo by Berry Craig)

“They’re doing it on the backs of the workers, and as I told the workers, as long as you accept it, as long as you remain an employee at will, you’re gonna get more of the same,” he said. “As I told them, when they’re being hit with fear, We have to do whatever the hell we have to do to win by any means necessary.”

Fain added that “the only limits we have are the limits we put on ourselves,” and said Georgetown workers would win their fight.

Fain’s speech, interrupted with cheering by union workers from all over Kentucky, also looked into the history and momentum of labor in this country. Not surprisingly, unions grow when income inequality gets worse. That’s one reason the UAW was able to strike at the Big Three Autoworkers — Stellantis, Ford and General Motors — and win so many concessions, such as a 25% pay raise for most workers.

Fain said the energy from the UAW “lit a fire.”

“We need to take our lives back,” he said. “That to me is one of the reasons our campaign resonated so well with working class people, not just in this country but all over the world. Union or not, everybody has gone backwards, and we’ve watched this massive gap grow between the haves and those who have not. And we want our lives back. That’s what this fight is about.”

Fain said his first goal as UAW president was changing the culture, starting with more transparency, and an end to “can’t” thinking. Right off the bat, they refused to endorse President Joe Biden as a candidate. “Our union had become a rubber stamp,” he said. “Our endorsements will be earned.”

Biden intends to earn it the second time; in September, he became the first sitting president to join a picket line, visiting striking UAW workers in Michigan.

Roughly 75% of Americans sided with the UAW in the recent strike. Fain said that’s because working class people struggle so much at the same time that 26 billionaires own as much wealth as 50% of the world.

“That’s not a problem,” he said. “That’s a f---- crisis.”

Kentucky roots

Fain spoke at the annual conference partly because of the union’s new campaign to win over non-union shops like Toyota and partly because he has roots here. His paternal grandfather was born in Nicholasville, but joined the Chrysler plant in Indiana in 1937, the same year it joined the UAW.

All four of his grandparents were UAW members.

“Kentucky means a lot to me because it’s where my roots are,” he said. “I’m humbled to stand here as UAW president.”

Fain also called out UAW members at the Local 862 in Louisville at Ford’s Kentucky Truck Plant, who got the call to strike and walked off the the job in 30 minutes.

“That brought Ford to its knees,” he said.

Toyota in Georgetown — where nearly 8,000 people work at the company’s largest assembly plant in the world — has historically resisted organizing efforts. Last week, the company declined to comment on the UAW’s Stand Up 2.0 campaign to organize non-union shops across the South and Midwest.

But it’s very clear that income inequality, the decline of the middle class, and a feeling that the economy has gone wrong for the working class has propelled organized labor even in a bright red, right-to-work state like Kentucky.

“Unions are the real equalizers,” Fain said. “Workers are being left behind, unions are the tool to change it.”

Kentucky’s long-time AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan said workers at Toyota, and other places, have to feel that they are part of a larger movement.

“Campaigns like Toyota could take a long time or be over very quickly, depending on whether these workers want to take their fates into their own hands,” he said.

Todd Dunn, president of the UAW Local 862 in Louisville, was even more positive.

“I feel very confident we’re going to organize Toyota,” he said.