UAW’s Shawn Fain rips ‘the Musks of the world’ for taking advantage of workers


Shawn Fain, president of United Auto Workers (UAW), is going for a victory lap after leading UAW to a record-breaking deal with better wages and benefits. He’s looking to expand the movement toward non-unionized automakers—and he’s not letting CEO of Tesla and Twitter-turned-X Elon Musk, who is anti-union, get in the way. 

During a Q&A at the UAW Solidarity House in downtown Detroit last Friday, Fain responded to questions from The Detroit News regarding Musk’s recent comments about unions at The New York Times DealBook Summit, where Musk said a Tesla unionization would be a marker of some failure on leadership’s behalf. The labor movement sweeping the nation “is a lot bigger than Elon Musk,” Fain said. But Musk is symbolic of the CEO that Fain is trying to reign in.

“The irony is he talks about lords and peasants, and that’s the current status,” Fain said of Musk. “While he’s getting extremely wealthy off the backs of his workers and he’s building rocket ships to fly his ass into outer space, workers continue to scrape to get by.” 

“Lords and peasants” has become billionaire Musk’s favored refrain when speaking of discontent and social hierarchy. He brought up the concept during the DealBook Summit, where he told advertisers to “go f-ck yourself” and that there are “no lords and peasants at Tesla,” citing nameless employees who worked their way up and stating that workers and execs alike eat at the same table and parks in the same lot. 

But even if everyone’s cars are nestled up next to each other, Musk is still raking in the big bucks. In 2018, he came under fire for his $50 billion pay package. That year, the median Tesla worker salary was earning just over $56,000, which was 40,668 times less than Musk’s pay.

If you ask Fain, this kind of wealth gap is a sign that Musk is taking advantage of his employees. “The world’s richest man is the richest man for a reason,” Fain told the Associated Press in November. “They get this kind of wealth by exploiting other people.” 

Fain isn’t shy about his anti-billionaire stance—he noted during the Q&A that many CEOs in the Big Three gave themselves a pay raise and should do the same for their workers. “When 26 billionaires have as much wealth as half of humanity, we have a crisis,” he added. 

A collision course 

A growing wealth disparity has been turning up the burner on a labor movement for some time now. Despite low membership, approval for unions is at the highest level since 1965, according to a 2022 Gallup survey. Ballooning inequality during the pandemic fueled a long-coming discontent regarding stagnant wages and an inflated economy. It led to a year of strikes in both the white-collar and blue-collar fields, as everyone from healthcare workers to the entertainment industry campaigned their much wealthier executives for greater benefits, protections against innovations like A.I., and just a larger slice of the pie. 

Long-standing unions saw some great success this year: UPS drivers scored a six figure deal, and Fain led UAW to victory with a contract for a record breaking 33% raise in pay for Detroit Three employees. But Fain isn’t resting on his laurels; he plans to expand UAW membership to non-union manufacturers, too. 

That’s where the collision course of Fain and Musk comes in. Musk said at the Summit that he “disagrees with the idea of unions,” because (looping in the phrase of the day) it “creates a lords and peasants sort of thing.” Asserting that unions create negativity, he added that if his workers did unionize, it would be deserved “because we failed in some way.”

That unionization might be coming faster than Musk anticipated. So far, overseas Tesla workers in Sweden are making waves after a walk-off in the fall. “To think you can waltz in here as a feudal lord and think a whole country should adapt to one’s whims is just wrong,” Susanna Gideonsson, president of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, said of Musk’s anti-union comments. The strike is finding solidarity from unions in Denmark and Norway

American workers aren’t that happy either. Over 1,000 workers at Volkswagen’s Tennessee factory have signed on to Fain’s campaign to unionize every auto worker outside Detroit. “Working class people want their lives back,” Fain said at the Detroit Q&A. “Workers are fed up with scraping to get by paycheck-by-paycheck while wealthy people like the Musks of the world just keep taking more and more at the expense of millions of workers.”

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