As I write this it’s the early stages of a strike by the United Auto Workers against the Domestic 3 — General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis.

But Shawn Fain and the UAW are far ahead in the communications game.

While the automaker leaders are just recently appearing, occasionally, on targeted mainstream media — Shawn Fain has been rallying his membership and the public for months.

Fain has only been in office since late March, but I immediately noticed the big change in communication style when he took over.

A number of UAW officials in recent years have been shown to new single-room, barred accommodations — including the then-president, Gary Jones. A lot of people thought the union was on the ropes.

Enter stage left, Shawn Fain. He knew he had a mountain to climb. He grabbed the job, grabbed the microphone, and got to work.

Where previous leadership was hard to find (we obviously now know why) — Fain started having an open dialogue with members. And the public could easily look in on much of it. Send in questions.

black bmw car parked on parking lot
Photo by Mateusz Suski on Unsplash

It’s like the union’s communications hopped in a DeLorian for a three-decade time-warp to the present. And it’s paying off in spades.

Here are six ways they’re communicating smartly, in no particular order:

  1. Direct, clear communication with people. No disrespect to my media friends, but we’re not as necessary for getting the message out anymore. Large sections of the public trust social media as much as media outlets (and trust is declining generally).

  2. The fight was made relevant to more than union membership. Despite the national numbers showing economic prosperity, a lot of people on the ground feel like this economy isn’t — and hasn’t — benefited them for a long time. It’s hard to care about “de-dollarization” when you’ve been un-dollared in your own bank account for most of your working career.

  3. Staying away from politics. In a press gaggle last night (above), reporters pressed as they generally do to make a political fight — some version of “What did you talk to Biden about?” Fain smartly side-stepped and put the focus back on the strike itself. He knows his membership are not all Democrats or Republicans; and honestly, most people don’t like either of the top presidential options. His only job is to get the best deal for his members.

  4. Authenticity. Fain isn’t the most polished speaker, and that’s ok. Have you opened TikTok? Reels? Be yourself. He’s a man of faith, and included that in his pre-strike prep speech the other night. Whether you subscribe to what he believes or not, you have to respect it because that’s who he is. You don’t see him in a suit. He doesn’t edit out his minor foibles. He speaks like my aunts and uncles who worked for the UAW over the years.

  5. Using audio and video. Few in the public care about press statementsthat aren’t even posted in your own newsroom. They come off distant. When in leadership in 2023 at a public-facing brand, and debating something that impacts the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people, the public now expects you. This isn’t new. FDR’s Fireside chats. Whistle-stop tours running for President. There’s a great example of this in politics. Rep. Jeff Jackson in North Carolina gets more views than any of the cable news outlets every time he posts a TikTok. Direct and not trying to be “how do you do fellow kids,” just him. It works.

  6. The power of nostalgia. Back in the 1930s - as told to me by my great aunt who was the UAW’s first female international executive board member and vice president - the unions went to physical battle with security forces. Union leader Walter Reuther often feared for his life. People spilled blood for the cause, something that’s incomprehensible to many Americans living today. Recalling that imagery of nearly a century ago brought to life the anger a lot of people are feeling right now. The “Stand Up Stike,” echoing the “Sit Down” strike in Flint, is brilliant messaging.

I don’t know when this strike ends. I hope soon, so everyone can get back to getting paychecks, our supplier tiers don’t fall over, and a fair contract is figured out going forward.

I do think that if the UAW and Fain are viewed as successful, Elon Musk at Tesla, Toyota, and others are going to be the next targets.

The UAW has failed on their previous union expansion drives for a number of reasons, but trust is one of them. Lack of clarity on the benefits. A feeling among some like workers would join an organization where they wouldn’t be heard, so why give up part of their paychecks?

But if workers feel like this is a higher calling worth fighting for? And that their Domestic 3 colleagues won a far fairer share? It might just change the equation for people on the factory floor — and the labor movement in general.

Did you know I do a daily podcast sharing what to know and where to go in Metro Detroit? Find Daily Detroit on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to shows.

Share this post