UAW president Shawn Fain called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza yet endorsed Biden, who has been accused of complicity in Israel’s genocidal war. Frank Hammer, a former president and chairman of the United Auto Workers local 909 in Detroit, joins theAnalysis to discuss the role of the UAW and the working class in balancing opposing Biden’s policies and a possible Trump victory.
Hi, I’m Talia Baroncelli, and you’re tuned in to theAnalysis.news. I’ll shortly be joined by Frank Hammer to discuss the UAW and Shawn Fain’s call for a ceasefire in Gaza, as well as Shawn Fain’s subsequent endorsement of President Biden.
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Joining me now is Frank Hammer. He is the former President and Chairman of the United Auto Workers Local 909, which is located at the GM transmission plant in Detroit. He used to be a former GM employee and worked for GM for 32 years. Frank, it’s great to have you back.
Great to be with you again. Thank you.
Shawn Fain, who is the President of the UAW, has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, and he recently endorsed President Biden. There are some groups within the UAW, such as Labor for Palestine, who are opposed to this endorsement as they see this as a contradiction of the UAW’s values and the UAW’s declared support for Palestine and for Palestinians. Would you characterize Shawn Fain’s endorsement of Biden as a respectability politics that’s perhaps misplaced? Would you call on him to rescind this endorsement?
Why don’t we start out with a non-controversial subject? Yes, I think, first of all, it was historic that Shawn Fain, on behalf of the International Executive Board in the UAW, came out with a declaration back in December, calling on a ceasefire. The resolution that the UAW endorsed was a resolution that had been originally circulated by the United Electrical Workers and has been signed on to by numerous labor organizations. It’s a broadly supported resolution. In that resolution, it calls for an immediate ceasefire, and it also calls for the end of the siege on Gaza.
It was a bold statement, and I want to add that historically, the UAW has supported zionist Israel. To venture into this territory and make that statement, and he’s done it repeatedly, is really a departure from what the UAW on their prior administrations may have done. This was part and parcel of the UAW rank and file electing a new president directly by membership votes.
Then we go to the declaration of the endorsement for Biden, that took place at the UAW’s bi-annual Political Action Conference. You could say it came as a surprise and that it didn’t come as a surprise at all. There was no qualification of Biden agreeing to a ceasefire, so that was greatly disappointing, especially to the UAW Labor for Palestine rank and file effort, which has been really pressing, especially in the East Coast, for the UAW, not only to declare the ceasefire, but to carry through with that resolution in the ways that the UAW can do, which include the UAW represents defense workers in the military-industrial complex. The UAW Labor for Palestine feels that the UAW can play an outsized role in preventing weapons and armaments being sent to Israel made with UAW hands.
We have to look at the larger picture, and it’s very painful for me to venture into this territory, but it’s going to be painful for all of us because right now, the slogan that has been projected not only by rank and file activist looking for the ceasefire but also in the Arab community here in the outskirts of Detroit, for example, in Dearborn, is we have the slogan of “Genocide Joe.” This is most unfortunate, but we’re also dealing with the reality that we have an election in November and wish as we might that there would be a third-party alternative, for instance, a labor party or some grassroots political party. We don’t have that. We don’t have that in November. We are faced with a stark choice of Trump, who has already openly declared that he intends to empower himself in a dictatorship. We have a Biden who is wedded to the genocide and the destruction that’s going on in Israel. These are very difficult circumstances that we face, but it’s clear that the UAW and the labor movement are going to want to endorse Biden, even with the difficulty of seeing daily images of the U.S. arm-in-arm with Netanyahu, who is perpetrating all this destruction and death in Palestine.
I think that supporting him does not mean that we cease in pressing Democrats, not only at the president’s level, the resolution also calls for pressing members of Congress, and I think that the UAW can do a lot to support the likes of Rashida Tlaib, and her call for a ceasefire in the U.S. House and pressing other Democrats who are not coming out on behalf of the ceasefire, and pressing on to do so. I think that we’re in a position of supporting Biden, but that does not in any way stop us from mounting a full-scale labor-led movement to reverse directions and to do it not down the road but soon, sooner rather than later, to stop all the destruction and the deaths.
I think the media is reporting that we have 30,000 Palestinians who have lost their lives. When is enough is enough? It needs to be done, and the UAW needs to continue to speak up in spite of the fact that there are other reasons why the UAW would support Biden.
I will ask you again because I don’t fully understand what the purpose is in endorsing Biden. Is it because after the strike, he did visit the picket line, whereas Trump didn’t do so? Is it a thank you for supporting us in our historic strike? Is that why Shawn Fain endorsed President Biden, or are there other strategic reasons to do so? Personally, as an outsider, I don’t see this endorsement as being in line with the call for a ceasefire and for an immediate ceasefire. I see those two things as being at odds with one another. I don’t fully understand the logic behind the endorsement.
I should add that the UAW Labor for Palestine has expressed the view why endorse President Biden now in February? Why not hold out and say, as a condition of our endorsement, you’re going to have to compel a ceasefire in Palestine? That’s a reasonable position to hold. To answer your question, I do believe that in the UAW negotiations, and this is speculation on my part, I don’t have insider information, that there certainly was a deal that was struck between the UAW and the Biden administration that enabled the UAW, for example, of rescuing the Stellantis plant in Belvidere, Illinois, which had been idled and was doomed to be closed. It seems that the Biden administration had a hand in assisting the UAW in convincing or negotiating with Stellantis to not only keep that plant open, but to add another plant nearby, a battery plant.
I know that the UAW and Shawn Fain early on held out for some federal intervention on behalf of the UAW and behalf of the union when the federal government gave all these subsidies to the auto companies for GM Stellantis in converting to battery production and electric power vehicles. That may have been also in the mix, although I didn’t detect that in the messaging that came out of the strike. Real-world, real politics, real reality; it’s possible that the federal government, and Biden specifically, carried the day for the UAW in these regards in exchange for the UAW agreeing to support Biden. I’m speculating, but I think that in the real world, I think that’s the kind of thing that happens.
The most troubling piece of it, of course, is that it really feels like a reversal for the Palestinians and certainly for the Arabic community here in Detroit because it was such a switch around. President Fain was here at the Martin Luther King event in Detroit and reiterated his call for a ceasefire. It was only literally a week later at the CPAC conference that no mention was made at all of the ceasefire resolution with Biden’s presence. I think it left a lot of anxiety. I certainly feel anxious about it myself. There are a lot of UAW members who feel anxious, never mind the broader community. That being said, I think that it behooves now the UAW rank and file and the labor movement as a whole, regardless of the endorsement, to press on with a mass movement to reverse directions in Israel.
Yeah, I think when the endorsement was announced, there were a few UAW Labor for Palestine members who were in Washington, and they disrupted one of Biden’s speeches. They were taken away by Secret Service members, and I’m assuming it was pretty violent. I haven’t actually seen footage of it. But I was then surprised to see that when Biden recently visited Michigan and visited a UAW meeting there with Shawn Fain, there was no mention of a ceasefire, as you just pointed out. I didn’t even see protesters there or UAW Labor for Palestine members there. Maybe they weren’t even allowed into the event. I’m not quite sure.
Yes, I can speak to that. So I wasn’t in town, unfortunately, but from all the reports that I received, Biden was scheduled to be in Michigan. The location was not disclosed. It was kept secret. It turns out that it was held at my region, region one, in Warren, Michigan, in Macomb County. But there were many protesters outside the complex where Biden spoke and glad-handed with UAW staffers and some UAW members who were there to make calls for Biden. But there was no indication, no connection. These were UAW Labor for Palestine. These were UAW members here in Detroit and supporters who came out to protest and demand the ceasefire and, of course, to denounce the endorsements. I believe that that’s going to follow Biden in any industrial city where he’s going to be and elsewhere, that he’s not going to be able to shed this demand, and that it needs to continue to follow him and continue to impress upon him that he is basically risking an election. He’s risking the November election, especially in the state of Michigan, where he only won by 150,000 votes in 2020. They have an Arabic community that has initiated an abandon Biden campaign.
I don’t know whether the Democratic Party establishment understands that they’re at the risk of losing the state of Michigan in November. This is one of the key states that’s going to decide the election in November. I think that for strategic reasons, for election purposes, Biden has to turn this around, never mind the moral arguments and the allegiance that he has to the working class. If he has an allegiance to the working class, he would be moving really quickly to demand a ceasefire and to cease equipping Israel and supplying more money as has been scheduled currently in the Senate, where they want to send another 14 billion to Israel to continue to perpetrate its genocide.
Well, you just added some really important context because some of our viewers and listeners will know that in Michigan, there are lots of Muslim and Arab Americans. Recently in Dearborn, the mayor of Dearborn refused to meet with Biden campaign officials. He did say that he would meet with officials from the Biden administration, but not with people in the campaign because he wanted to impress upon them the idea that this ceasefire is so crucial and that there has to be some give or take here or listening, at least to Arab Americans and to Muslims, and that’s not happening at the moment.
Because Michigan is so crucial to Biden winning the elections, you do wonder what’s going on. Is he completely tone-deaf, or does he not even want to win the elections? Does he not care about actually winning? It’s just remarkable to see what’s going on. And then, of course, you have this horrible Wall Street Journal op-ed that was recently published calling Dearborn a jihadi capital or some nonsense because there are people with conscience who are calling for a ceasefire. They’re not terrorists. They’re average people who are calling for a ceasefire. I think this is an important context.
Given all that, given what’s going on in the background, I wonder whether that’s sown divisions or perceived divisions within the UAW or if you think that most members are actually on the side of perhaps even calling for Shawn Fain to rescind the endorsement.
Well, a couple of things on that note. Let me say that within the ranks of UAW Labor for Palestine, within the Arabic community in Dearborn, Muslim community, this is so personal. People are losing family members in Gaza, in the West Bank. It couldn’t be any closer to one’s heart to see how they would see what Biden has done as a betrayal. The Arabic community, 70% of the Arabic Muslim communities in 2020 voted for Biden. You can imagine that they’re going to be very, not just reluctant. They’re not going to have the stomach to vote for Biden in 2024 unless this is reversed. And even then.
Well, I was wondering, are there additional tensions within the UAW as a result of Biden’s policy and Shawn Fain’s endorsement of Biden?
I think that broad swaths of UAW members are not familiar enough with the dynamics of the history of the creation of the state of Israel. That history is something that, generally, workers have not been familiar with. The UAW, unfortunately, in the past administrations, has been a close supporter of the zionist State of Israel. Therefore, the UAW has never bothered to educate its own rank and file about it. If they were to do so, it was on the side of Zionism.
We, in the ranks of the UAW, have a lot of catching up to do. We’re beginning the reform caucus within the UAW, UAWD. The United Auto Workers for Democracy held its first teach-in Palestine 101. We had UAW members and auto workers in on the education that we provided. People were really learning things that they had never known about Israel because of the corporate media and the incessant pro-zionist messaging that we get through corporate media.
I think it’s incumbent upon the UAW to do a lot of education in the rank and file. I think the rank and file get told daily that Hamas is a terrorist organization. You react to it, “Oh, that is a terrorist organization,” without understanding the context or even whether that’s an appropriate label for what’s happened.
The elements in the UAW that have a much more ready understanding are, of course, the UAW members that are in the academic institutions, as many are, or for example, in the legal profession in New York, they’re part of the Legal Aid Society. They’ve had much more contact with the information about Israel and Palestine, and they’re much more readily under our understanding that the UAW must take the side of Palestine and demand an end to the genocide.
That’s the way I would describe it. I don’t think that there’s a groundswell on the UAW right now in support of the position taken by Shawn Fain. I think that the leadership should do everything in its power to create that groundswell to show that UAW members, once they have the facts, something that Shawn Fain has really emphasized that I don’t think I have any question that UAW members would be part of that groundswell in support of the ceasefire.
Well, you recently attended the Martin Luther King Day event in Detroit a few weeks ago. You awarded Shawn Fain the Spirit of Flint Award. I was wondering if you could speak about the significance of that award, what it represents, and what you thought of the event in general.
Thank you. Yeah. By the way, that was a week before Shawn Fain endorsed Biden. There are very important reasons. First, as the Martin Luther King Day event has now entered, it was in its 21st year when, a couple of weeks ago, Shawn Fain accepted the invitation to speak at the event. First time. No other UAW president in the last 20 years has ever volunteered to speak at an event honoring Martin Luther King and honoring Martin Luther King in all of his manifestations, including in his opposition to the Vietnam War, including in his role in the labor movement, in support of the Memphis sanitation workers, etc.
Here is Shawn Fain; he brought other members of his leadership team with him and gave a very eloquent speech combining and putting together the labor movement and the Black liberation struggle, identifying Martin Luther King as such a key part in both movements and bringing those movements together. Even during the Martin Luther King event, as I stated earlier, he reiterated the call for a ceasefire.
Sorry if I can interject because I was listening to the speech. He not only called for a ceasefire, but the way he did it was very important because he was talking about Vietnam, specifically, and the speech that Martin Luther King gave, I think, a year and a day before he was assassinated, and how he was talking about what unites Americans and what affects American life is war abroad and how war abroad needs to be put to an end. He made that connection between Vietnam and Gaza. Hearing that and then hearing that a week later, he would endorse Joe Biden is what created some tension or at least caused cognitive dissonance for me.
Yes. I think that if Shawn Fain is going to be true to himself and the honor upon which he bestowed on Martin Luther King, he’s really going to have to re-examine what he’s doing regarding the support of the ceasefire. I say that because it was against all odds that King made the famous speech on April 4, 1967, during the Johnson administration, despite Johnson’s role in supporting Dr. Martin Luther King in the quest for the Civil Rights Act and so on. Even his people, associates, assistants, and advisors said, “Don’t do it, don’t do it.” King felt compelled, in spite of the fact that he got support from Johnson on other matters, to speak out about Vietnam, and he was denounced shortly after. He was denounced for this speech.
I think that Shawn Fain and the UAW as a whole, the UAW leadership, needs to look at that and say, If we’re going to meet that standard, that we’re holding up high, then we have to be willing to oppose Biden now, where we see him clearly in the wrong and clearly against the interests of the world’s people. He is clearly on the short end of the International Court of Justice, and the South Africans bravely going to that court and declaring that Israel is reasonably suspected of committing genocide and that we need to be on the side of South Africa. We were on the side of South Africa during their struggle against apartheid. We need to be against the Israeli zionists for the current apartheid against the Palestinians.
Well, I also want to ask you about Trump because, of course, Shawn Fain was very vocal about Trump. He’s come out against Trump, and he’s supported Biden. I think it’s pretty obvious or intuitive that he’d be speaking about Trump and how Trump doesn’t have the interests of the workers at heart.
You wrote a piece in 2015 for the Real News Network, and you were talking about an interview that Trump gave, and I think he gave it to Chuck Todd at MSNBC. He was saying, “Of course, I would bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States from abroad, and I would take them out West and ensure that people are paid a third of the wages or at least much less than what people were earning before.” He was pretty much exposing his position as being in cahoots with or in alignment with the transnational capitalist class.
Shawn Fain is aware of how horrible Trump is on these policies, but do you think he analyzes these policies as being part of a larger trend of global capitalism and how these capitalists have it out for the average worker? It’s not just Trump that has it out for them.
When I wrote that piece, it was interesting because, most recently, Shawn Fain has, in fact, referred to that interview that Trump did back in 2015. He spelled out that what Trump was promoting was that the corporations could show the unionized workforce in the Midwest a little thing or two by extracting the work from the Midwest. He said, “Oh, you don’t even have to go overseas. You can take it to a non-union area of the U.S. Within a couple of years, you could bring it back. Those workers, the unionized workers in the Midwest, would gladly accept the jobs at a third of the wages,” like you were saying.
What I was seeking to point out is that this wasn’t particularly unique to Trump. He was spilling the beans, so to speak, about what the capitalists have been doing in the last, certainly in the last neoliberal 40 years that we have been living through. Shawn Fain has wanted to contrast that with Biden, and I think that Shawn Fain falls short because this has not only been a Trump phenomenon, this has been a capitalist phenomenon.
In fact, Biden, along with Barack Obama and that administration, were instruments that Wall Street used to exact all these concessions during the bankruptcy of GM and Stellantis, or Chrysler than, I believe, that we have had to suffer with, including the multi-tier wages, including the loss of cost of living allowance. All these things that were extracted during the bankruptcy were done under a Democratic administration, under President Obama and Joe Biden. We can’t give it now. He’s being characterized. Biden has been characterized as, well, he had the backs of the workers, and I’m so sorry, but that’s simply not true.
Let’s face it: the UAW is confronted with two capitalist parties. We don’t have a labor party of our own. Although we attempted to do that decades ago, we’re stuck. In fact, I think that to Shawn Fain’s credit, he was able to undo the damage, a lot of the damage that was done through the bankruptcy by a Democratic administration. The Democratic administration during that bankruptcy didn’t put any time limit on any of the concessions that were extracted from the the UAW. The only time limit they placed was on suspending the UAW’s right to strike. That in the bankruptcy proceedings was slated to be reinstated in 2015, which it was. But no such time limits were put on the cost of living.
We had to go on a 40-day strike in 2023 to get back what was extracted from UAW members during the bankruptcy. We have to look it in the eye. We have to talk facts and say, I’m so sorry, but that was part of the Wall Street scheme, and the engineers of it were Biden as the vice president and Barack Obama as president. Like it or not, we have to deal with that. I was shocked when Biden came to a picket line here in Michigan. I was shocked to learn that he was the first president that had ever done that. I didn’t know that, but it’s a matter of optics. It was good optics. It was great optics, but it was optics. More substance has to come down the road.
The UAW should be pressing for what are we doing about the minimum wage? The minimum wage is the same now as it was under Obama. It’s a 7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage. Why isn’t the labor movement addressing that full force? That would help all workers if the minimum wage was raised to the level that we need at this moment in time. I think there’s a lot of work to do. This whole narrative about Biden had our backs, and Trump was a bad guy, and Biden was a good guy. Well, in reality, the Democratic Party administration, although they weren’t saying it, they were pretty much toeing the line quite like what Trump was announcing.
Well, a lot of it is optics, as you said. Joe Biden’s approval rating is currently at 37%, which is basically President Jimmy Carter’s level approval rate. It’s pretty abysmal. Not that approval rating necessarily determines the outcome of an election, but it’s an indication that things aren’t going so well.
The fact that he showed up at the picket line isn’t even surprising to me, even though, as you said, no president has done so before. I think he’s trying to score all the points that he can get because he’s clearly aging, he’s fumbling around, having falls, and a lot of people don’t agree with him on certain policies, especially Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. I think he was trying to score some points wherever he could.
I do want to ask you something, and if we don’t fully get into it now, I think we should do a separate episode on this in the future. That is the history of labor in the United States and the links that they have traditionally had to the sources of decision-making power within the United States government, as well as within the CIA, and how they’ve been involved in suppressing labor movements in other countries, such as countries in Latin America.
The question we can raise right now in that context is, where is the AFL-CIO in regard to the genocide that’s taking place? The AFL-CIO is also, again, very much connected with, as you were saying, the federal government, the Central Intelligence Agency, NED [National Endowment for Democracy], which is funded by the federal government for the AFL-CIO. There are state AFL-CIO councils that are passing resolutions in support of a ceasefire, but they’re not doing it because the AFL National Administration is promoting it. They’re not. They’re suppressing it.
I think it’ll be a very, very important conversation to talk about the role of the AFL-CIO, not just in line with Israel and Palestine, but certainly in line with other attacks on working classes in other countries, whether it be in Chile, whether it in El Salvador, whether it be in Venezuela, you name it. The AFL-CIO has been very key in promoting U.S. foreign policy. That obviously is a big challenge, but it’s something that needs to change if we’re going to have a real progressive labor movement in this country.
For those who don’t know, that stands for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. I guess they represent all the unions. Is that how you would best describe them, or how would you describe the function of the AFL-CIO?
The AFL-CIO is the largest labor federation in the U.S. It’s not the only one. Approximately 50 or 60 unions are part of the federation, including, for example, the UAW. But there are other elements in the labor movement, for example, the Teamsters; I forget which of the other ones. There are significant labor formations that are not part of the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO has a membership of about 14 million workers. It’s a sizable force that, if it was true to labor’s agenda, would be playing a much larger force in the U.S. on behalf of the working class of not only this country but the working classes of other countries, the international working class. That’s not been its role. It’s very important that U.S. workers who are, by and large, kept out of knowing anything about the AFL-CIO, that we begin to open that up and expose that and reveal that for people to know what we are supporting with our dues. Union members’ dues do support the AFL-CIO.
Well, we’ll get into that next time. I think that’ll be really fascinating. Well, Frank, it’s been great speaking to you. Is there anything else you want to reflect on about the UAW and calls for a ceasefire?
Well, I think that as angry as we might be in regards to the role currently being played by Biden and the Democratic Party, I think we have to really be mindful that what Trump represents is fascism. As such, It’s very clear that if he were back in the presidency, there would be no limits to his aggression against immigrants, which, by the way, Shawn Fain has been speaking on behalf of. There’s no question that there would be a tax on Muslims wholesale, that there would be a tax on workers. I think that we have to be extremely mindful of what that would represent for us, never mind the environment, never mind the climate crisis. Trump denounces Shawn Fain for pronouncing that we do have a global warming crisis and for supporting a transition away from ICE vehicles: internal combustion engines. Trump would do no such thing. A Trump election would surely doom the planet to a very grim future. But certainly, Biden has got shortcomings on that score as well.
I do agree with you for the most part. I just think that a lot of people, especially in Michigan, for example, who are Arab-American or Muslim-American, are worried that Biden actually uses that as a justification for his policies and saying Trump was the one who enacted the Muslim ban, and if Trump were to come back, then there would be a Muslim ban, and Muslim immigrants would not be able to come to the U.S., or they wouldn’t be welcome in the U.S. Yet, based on the conversations I’ve had with some people in Michigan who are Muslim, they have said that that’s not something they’re really worried about because what is currently going on in Gaza is just unspeakable horrors and a complete disregard for Palestinians, as well as a disregard for the opinion and the culture of a ceasefire by Muslim and Arab Americans within the United States. Not to say that I don’t think Trump represents a vile form of politics. At the same time, I feel like some people don’t really want to face the, I guess, trajectory that Biden comes from and the fact that he’s always been in support of these wars. He’s never really, despite what he says about criticizing trickle-down politics and saying that, food never trickled down to my table when I was a kid, but he still supports that broader capitalist class and warmongering machine. I think we have to be mindful of that, even when we’re pointing to the horrors of Trump.
I completely respect that position. It’s something that deserves more discussion and clarification. I’m very clear that we’re in a very difficult position with these two capitalist parties buying for control in the fall. I’m totally aware of that.
Well, Frank Hammer, it was great speaking to you, and I’m looking forward to our next conversation. Thank you for watching theAnalysis.news. If you enjoy this content and you’d like to support us, you can do so by going to our website, theAnalysis.news, getting onto our mailing list, and hitting the donate button at the top right corner of the screen. Thanks for watching, and see you soon.
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Frank Hammer is the former president and bargaining chair of UAW local 909 and General Motors at Warren, Michigan. He’s a retired UAW–GM international representative. He’s co-founder of the Autoworker Caravan and co-chair of the International Auto Workers Council, GM section, and is a leading member of several worker solidarity networks within the UAW and in the U.S. and global labor movements.