DETROIT — A challenger defeated the president of the United Auto Workers in a close election and vowed Saturday to take a more confrontational stance in negotiating with the big automakers.
A court-appointed monitor declared challenger Shawn Fain the winner over incumbent Ray Curry. Fain’s slate of candidates won control of the big union, as workers rejected most incumbents in the wake of a bribery and embezzlement scandal
It was the 372,000-member union’s first direct election of its 14-member International Executive Board, which came in the wake of the wide-ranging scandal that landed two former presidents in prison.
The vote count had been going on since March 1, and the outcome was uncertain going into Saturday because of challenges against several hundred ballots.
Curry had filed a protest alleging election irregularities and campaign-financing violations. But he conceded Saturday and said Fain would be sworn in on Sunday.
Fain said members clearly wanted the union to become more aggressive in dealing with the auto makers.
“Today we put the companies on notice the fighting UAW is back,” Fain said in a video.
Fain vowed to end two-tiered contracts that provide lower pay and fewer benefits for some workers. He said the UAW will fight against factory closures that result in lost union jobs.
“We’ve seen plant after plant close without any serious fight from our union,” he said. “We’ve lost 40% of our active membership over the past 20 years. That ends here.”
Fain also promised to clean up the union.
Fain, 54, now an administrator with the international union in Detroit, had 69,459 votes, or 50.2%, while Curry had 68,976 votes, or 49.8%, according to an unofficial tally as the counting neared completion.
Earlier, Curry had asked court-appointed monitor Neil Barofsky to hold another runoff election because of the alleged irregularities, but Barofsky denied the request.
Fain’s UAW Members United slate now holds seven of 14 seats on the board, with one independent member siding with his slate. The Curry Solidarity Team slate has six board members. Four of five top officers are from Fain’s slate, including the secretary-treasurer and two of three vice presidents.
The new leadership will have to move quickly to gear up for what are expected to be contentious contract talks coming up this summer with Detroit’s three automakers, Ford, General Motors and Stellantis.
Many in the industry expect strikes against the companies by the union.
Fain will have little time to prepare for the union’s bargaining convention, which is scheduled to start Monday in Detroit. Delegates to the convention decide what the union will want in upcoming contract talks.
In the past, contracts with the Detroit Three set the standard for manufacturing wages nationwide. Fain’s statement said he wants to return to the union setting the wage and benefit standard for other sectors of the economy.
Fain and his slate will have to deal with member demands to restore concessions made when the automakers were headed into financial trouble starting in 2007. Many want cost-of-living pay raises, general raises, defined-benefit pensions for all workers, and eliminating tiers of workers so they all get the same pay and benefits.
Automakers prefer annual profit-sharing checks instead of raises so they pay workers when times are good and can cut expenses during economic downturns.
In a February draft of a transition plan, Fain wrote about a big shakeup coming in his first 30 days in office. Jobs will change, and new things will be expected of workers, some of whom will leave, it said.
“Everything we do, at every stage, must be reinforcing the message: there is a new sheriff in town,” Fain’s memo said.
The memo talks about a campaign to prepare workers for strikes.
Mike Booth, one of the new vice presidents, said the automakers are starting to argue that they are financially strapped because they have to fund the development of new electric vehicles. “You can’t develop an electric vehicle product on the backs of UAW members,” he said.
Strikes are possible as the union pushes to organize joint-venture battery plants being built by the companies, and to reverse a Stellantis decision to begin closing a plant in Belvidere, Illinois. Under Curry’s leadership for nearly the past two years, the UAW has taken a more aggressive stance in labor talks, having gone on strike against Volvo Trucks, John Deere, the University of California and CNHI, a maker of agricultural and construction equipment.
When asked about new UAW leadership on Friday, Ford CEO Jim Farley said his company gets along with the union. “Whomever is leading the UAW, we’ll have a great relationship with, and we’ll work hard to improve our industry … We’ll welcome whoever leads UAW,” he said.
Curry, who was not part of the scandal, was elected to the UAW’s top post by the executive board in June 2021.
The leadership change came after union members decided to directly vote on leaders for the first time in the union’s 87-year history. Under the old system, leaders were picked by delegates to a convention who were selected by local union offices. The new slate of officers was picked by the current leadership, and rarely was there serious opposition.
The direct voting came after 11 union officials and a late official’s spouse pleaded guilty in the corruption probe, including the two former presidents who were sentenced to prison. The first criminal charges in the probe were filed in 2017.
To avoid a federal takeover, the union agreed to reforms and Barofsky’s appointment to oversee the UAW and elections of the executive board.