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labor Can America’s New Union Hero Take On Elon Musk’s Tesla?

The UAW’s newish president won Detroit auto workers their best deals in decades. Now he’s out to organize Tesla and the rest of the industry’s EV jobs.

UAW President Shawn Fain aims to organize 150,000 new auto workers.,

Last summer, Joe Biden invited Shawn Fain into the Oval Office and told him it was time for a “come to Jesus” chat. Fain, the newish president of the United Auto Workers, was leading a high-stakes contract battle against Detroit’s Big Three automakers, and he’d been telling members, reporters and anyone else who’d listen that he wanted more help from the White House. The implication was that the UAW was holding out for more reasons to join the raft of major unions that had already endorsed Biden in his likely rematch with Donald Trump. “The federal government is pouring billions into the electric vehicle transition,” Fain had told members in a May letter, “with no strings attached and no commitment to workers.” Fain’s endorsement matters. The Rust Belt delivered Trump the presidency in 2016 and helped seal Biden’s victory in 2020.

At the White House, Biden reminded Fain of his labor-friendly achievements to date and suggested he was doing his part to support autoworkers, according to people familiar with the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss it. They say that Fain told Biden, “We don’t agree,” and rattled off a series of issues where he said the president should do more. Biden would have to help, Fain told him, to make sure the next generation of auto jobs would be worth workers’ time. This isn’t how US labor leaders tend to behave. For a generation, they’ve mostly lined up behind Democratic nominees and taken what they could get. While both parties declined to recount the conversation in detail, the people familiar with the meeting say Biden, who frequently describes himself as America’s most pro-union commander in chief, seemed taken aback.

That’s Fain for you. Since taking office in March, the 55-year-old has combined a populist platform worthy of Bernie Sanders with a Trump-tier knack for spectacle. Where his predecessors symbolically shook hands with auto CEOs at the start of contract talks, he snubbed them. He took to addressing members while wearing a T-shirt reading “EAT THE RICH.” He livestreamed himself throwing an early contract proposal from his old boss, Chrysler (now Stellantis NV), into the trash. When the companies didn’t meet his terms, he made good on his strike threats, calling targeted work stoppages that began in September and grew in size over time.

In a series of interviews with Bloomberg Businessweek held between August and January in and around Detroit and Washington, Fain said his refusal to compromise along familiar lines—to accept lower pay, fewer benefits, less job security—was an overdue corrective after decades of disrespect from management, Washington and the UAW’s own ranks. “We have a horrible history in this union, in my work life, of setting expectations low and settling lower,” he said in an interview last summer at Solidarity House, the UAW’s headquarters, on the banks of the Detroit River. “Those days are over.”

All this bluster could be dismissed as just that if Fain hadn’t won. He called strikes at each of the Big Three’s most valuable plants, and by November he’d reached deals with all three that well exceeded what most observers thought possible. The UAW emerged from a punishing six-week strike with wage increases of 25%, or as much as 33% if you throw in cost-of-living adjustments. There’s no precedent for that in most members’ lifetimes. And temporary workers making less than $17 an hour will be converted to permanent and see their wages more than double, to above $41, by the time the contract expires in 2028. “The UAW was underestimated the whole way,” an uncharacteristically sedate Jim Cramer told CNBC viewers after the deals were announced. “It was just a real beatdown.”

Ford, General Motors and Stellantis declined to comment for this story.

While the ink dried on the contracts, Fain announced an even more audacious campaign. The UAW has 380,000 active members, about two-thirds of whom make cars or auto parts. (The rest include everyone from typesetters to post­doctoral researchers.) Fain is now trying to add another 150,000 by unionizing the US plants of 13 more companies, including BMW, Nissan, Subaru, Tesla and Volkswagen. Thousands of workers across those companies have already signed up for the organizing drive, and the union has set up a campaign for each. This is the essential next step, Fain says, toward protecting the UAW’s gains by making sure the industry’s green jobs are good ones.

Most everyone, including auto executives and Biden, says the transition to EVs is the future of the auto industry. The Big Three have committed to spending well over $100 billion on EVs this decade. “We have to embrace it, we have to endorse it and we have to lead it,” Fain told Businessweek shortly after the strikes ended. “So we’re going to do whatever we can to make it work for working-class people.” His UAW pullover was adorned with a brightly colored pin gifted to him by a buddy, a comment on his R-rated Detroit contract talks. It bore a tiny spinning “F---” arrow and a wheel of words that together completed phrases like “F--- THIS,” “F--- OFF” and “F--- YOU.”

Skeptics argue that Fain is just F-wheeling around, that higher wages will make it harder for US companies to compete in the EV market and that Americans don’t want the cars anyway. Electric models accounted for about 8% of US auto sales last year, according to researcher Cox Automotive, and carmakers in the US spent much of 2023 marking down their EVs, cutting profit forecasts and delaying production of new models. While US sales growth in EVs continues to outstrip that of the overall car market, Trump has made electrics a familiar bogeyman in his campaign for Rust Belt votes, and many workers believe him when he says the better way to protect their jobs is to keep betting on gas. In December, Stellantis warned it may lay off about 3,600 employees as it struggles to sell enough hybrids to satisfy California emissions rules.

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Along with selling the cars, Detroit’s future success depends on whether Fain’s union can force the industry’s other players, including Elon Musk, to improve their wages, benefits and safety. Fain says where EV skeptics see the inevitability of market forces and Chinese labor standards, he sees a clear set of policy choices favoring the typical Businessweek reader over his colleagues. “There’s no future, in this path we’re on, for the majority of people,” he said at the UAW’s political headquarters in Washington this January. “We have to change the dialogue.”

Some UAW members worry that Fain is overpromising, but most of the dozens of members interviewed for this story say he’s earned enough credibility to take a big swing. “If you hear him say something, it’s nothing that you don’t hear a thousand times inside of these doors,” says Ford employee Landen Bradshaw. A growing number of allies at nonunion plants share his vision, too. “I want to be part of making that future,” says Deairatry Hilliard, a grandmother of three who’s volunteered to help the UAW organize her Rivian Automotive Inc. electric truck plant in Illinois. But also, she says, “I want something better for us. Not just for the future, but for us, now.”

Fain has a way of making people budge. In August, a month after his Oval Office chat—which Fain described in an interview as “a very honest discussion about where we stand”—the US Department of Energy announced an additional $12 billion in grants and loans to convert auto factories to produce hybrids and EVs, saying it would prioritize union shops and higher-paying jobs. A month later, Biden became the first sitting president to join a picket line. During his appearance in Michigan, he gave a brief speech before passing the mic to “Shawn Fain, your president.” Fain thanked him and told the crowd, “We know the president will do right by the working class.” Biden put his arm around a UAW member and stood by as Fain gave a speech about the union’s “war” against “corporate greed”—a bigger enemy, he suggested, than any foreign adversary. When Fain declared the working class to be “the true liberators,” Biden pumped his fist.

Big Three jobs were once good enough to lure Fain’s grandparents from Tennessee and Kentucky to Indiana. Three went to General Motors Co., including his father’s mother, whose parents had handed her off to an orphanage during the Great Depression. Another went to Chrysler in 1937, the same year the union was formally recognized. UAW jobs were “the gold standard,” says Fain, who in 1994 got his own job at the Indiana plant. He worked there until the UAW hired him in 2012, by which point, he says, the union’s clout and courage had collapsed.

After peaking at about 1.5 million in the 1970s, UAW membership fell by more than two-thirds over the following four decades, as auto work moved abroad and to new US plants the union failed to organize. In 2007, after Chrysler’s private equity buyout, the UAW agreed to concessions including a lower pay scale for subsequent hires. Fain, then a local elected UAW committeeman, wrote a letter telling union leadership that by agreeing to this deal “you might as well get a gun and shoot yourself in the head.” Once he joined UAW staff, he says, union brass chided him for failing to see the company as family.

In 2017 the Department of Justice announced a probe into UAW corruption and bribery by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles executives. The investigation led to convictions of 15 union and company officials, including two former UAW presidents, and a 2020 settlement that eventually led, early in 2023, to the UAW’s first direct election of its president by the full membership. Fain says he prayed a lot before deciding to run for the top spot, expecting that if he lost, he’d lose his UAW job, too. During a Zoom debate with Ray Curry, the UAW’s then-president, Fain declared himself “mad as hell” about the union’s recent track record, which he blamed on leaders with low expectations who “view the companies as our partners rather than our adversaries.” Curry declined to comment for this story.

Fain won a runoff by about 500 votes, but he quickly started acting like a man with a mandate. He sidelined some old-timers and filled key roles with outsiders, including a former Sanders organizer and a former reporter who’d been a fierce critic of past UAW leaders. Together, they started prepping for a fight. “Are you ready to rumble?” Fain asked at an August rally where he also quoted the Old Testament and Malcolm X. The crowd clapped and cheered.

He arrived at the bargaining table with lofty demands (pensions, four-day workweek) and announced that absent a deal, the Big Three could expect a strike the moment their contracts expired. Rather than bargaining with one company at a time, setting a ceiling on what the other two might offer, he negotiated with all three at once, leading them to copy one another’s concessions to keep up. Far from keeping the talks private and cordial, he livestreamed detailed, often blistering updates. “They look at me, and they see some redneck from Indiana,” he said during one stream. “They look at you, and they see somebody they would never have over for dinner or let ride on their yacht.”

At midnight on Sept. 15, Fain launched a strike at one plant from each company. Then he expanded the stoppage week by week, doling out punishment to whichever companies he felt were behaving poorly at the bargaining table. Workers watched his livestreams on their phones at their factories, waiting to learn if they’d be the next to walk out. When Ford Motor Co. showed up to negotiations without a new economic offer, Fain said, “You just lost Kentucky Truck,” and then, with a phone call, launched a surprise strike at its most lucrative plant. “Shutting down that plant harms tens of thousands of Americans,” Chairman Bill Ford said in an October speech, citing the impact on suppliers and communities as well as the factory’s workers.

At certain points, Fain threatened to strike GM and Stellantis’ entire US workforces. At another, Stellantis North America’s chief operating officer, Mark Stewart, suggested the company used temps partly because many workers couldn’t be trusted to show up for their shifts, and Fain accused him of “f---ing gall.” Fain, whose media team publicly highlighted Instagram posts that showed Stewart hanging in Mexico during bargaining, asked the COO if he and Chief Executive Officer Carlos Tavares should be docked attendance points for not showing up on time for talks. (Stewart, who left Stellantis this January, declined to comment.) “The proudest days of my life have been the birth of my children, the marriage to my wife, my acceptance into the Marine Corps and the day that Shawn Fain told Mark Stewart to go f--- himself,” says Daniel Vicente, a machine operator who was elected a UAW regional director as part of Fain’s ticket.

During a late October livestream, Fain told members the companies were right to say they were offering “record” contracts but that they still had a lot of bad years to make up for: “We’ve got cards left to play, and they’ve got money left to spend.” The deals he reached over the next couple of weeks showed he was right. Along with the massive across-the-board pay raises and the promotions for their longtime temps, the companies agreed to pay about $150 million in what amounted to back pay for the period workers spent on strike. GM and Stellantis also agreed to make it easier for workers at their EV battery plants, which are joint ventures with South Korean companies, to unionize and join the contracts. Biden called Fain from a state dinner with the Australian prime minister to congratulate him.

Auto executives have said that Fain’s polemics did lasting damage to the UAW’s relationships with their companies and that he could have gotten the same results without all the personal attacks. Company officials felt they were being unfairly cast as villains in a lefty morality play meant to drum up support for unionization. “This should not be Ford versus the UAW,” Bill Ford said in his October speech. “It should be Ford and the UAW versus Toyota, Honda, Tesla and all the Chinese companies that want to enter our home market.” GM leaders were rankled by a UAW video highlighting the eight-figure annual compensation of CEO Mary Barra and her peers, which depicted them wearing crowns as halos of $100 bills circled their heads. Some lawmakers and even local union leaders say it’ll take time to rebuild trust between the two sides. “If we stay too radical, we’re going to lose out on opportunities,” says one UAW local leader who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of ticking off the national leadership. He says he worries about spooked automakers shying away from investment in battery jobs.

Fain acknowledges that he can misfire when shooting from the hip, such as when he briefly declared a battery deal with GM “dead in the water” while the two sides were just working through details. “ ‘Dead in the water’ probably wasn’t a good choice of words that day,” he says. “It’s just, when I have 20 cameras in my face and people throwing things at me, it was just the first thing that came out of my mouth.” But he notes the deal got done all the same. Workers at several prominent plants, including Kentucky Truck Plant, voted against the deals because they wanted more, not less. And allies say telling hard truths helped Fain galvanize his members, with spectacular results. “He has shown what grassroots leadership is all about,” says Sanders, who chairs the Senate’s labor committee. “Shawn is an honest guy, and he told them the truth,” adding that “it resonated all over the country.”

Being green doesn’t make a job safe. In October the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued citations alleging 17 serious safety violations at GM’s Ohio EV battery plant, which it inspected following an explosion there earlier last year. OSHA inspectors found that Ultium Cells LLC, GM’s venture with Korean company LG Energy Solution Ltd., failed to provide respiratory protection from exposure to hazardous chemicals or install required protections on machines. When workers were exposed to corrosive chemicals in April, they “were not provided with an emergency shower or a suitable eyewash station,” according to the agency’s report. When hazardous substances were released in the workplace in May, the company failed to execute an emergency response. In September an employee was threatened with punishment for reporting an injury, “and employees failed to report workplace incidents for fear of retaliation,” OSHA inspectors said.

“I figured they’d have their crap together,” says Ethan Surgenavic, who took a job as an HVAC technician at the Ultium plant in 2022, lured in part by GM’s reputation. “Boy, was I wrong.” One day, when he arrived for his shift and the work area was full of smoke from a fire, no one from management mentioned it. Ultium workers, who voted to unionize in 2022, say they’ve benefited from bargaining collectively and joining the UAW’s new master contract with GM. Along with the big raise—some Ultium plant workers were originally making $15.50 an hour, less than they’d earn at a nearby TJX HomeGoods warehouse or the local Pepsi distributor—the plant now has union-selected safety reps. An Ultium spokesperson says the company is working closely with the UAW to address safety hazards and looks forward to working with OSHA to resolve its concerns.

Fain says the plant shows the importance of marrying better working conditions to EV production. “If a worker is not going to leave their house to work at McDonald’s for $15 an hour and make burgers and fries,” he says, “why the hell are they going to go in some battery factory and be exposed to chemicals that make them vomit and pass out?”

Republicans are feeding anxiety about the green energy transition and turning it to their advantage. In the fall, the day after Biden walked the picket line in Michigan, Trump gave a speech at a nonunion auto parts plant several dozen miles away, where he told the crowd of several hundred that the move toward electrics would mean the end of union jobs. The ex-president said he supported the UAW members’ struggle, but with EVs, “it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference, because in two to three years, you will not have one job in this state.” He urged any UAW members there to talk him up to their president: “Shawn, endorse Trump, and you can take a nice, two-month vacation, come back, and you guys are going to be better off than you ever were.”

Stellantis employee Doug King wore his UAW T-shirt to the rally. “I only felt secure when Trump was in office,” says King, who believes he’ll do more than Biden to preserve US auto jobs. After the rally, King met Trump and says the former president asked him two questions: What did he think of EVs, and what would it take to get Fain’s endorsement? King told Trump Fain’s nod was unlikely, but “you’ve got a lot of support in the plant.”

He’s probably right. While Fain has told members a Trump restoration would hurt their interests, he recognizes the appeal of Trump’s argument. “Our workers’ experience right now with this EV transition is not a good thing,” he told Businessweek in August. “So when somebody else comes along and says, ‘Get ready to watch your jobs disappear,’ that is gonna resonate.” Fain himself voted for third-party candidate Ross Perot in 1992’s presidential election, in support of Perot’s vociferous opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the billionaire warned would create a “giant sucking sound” as it hoovered up US jobs.

In recent years, the Big Three and the UAW have each said EVs might involve far fewer labor hours than their gas-powered siblings, because they involve fewer parts and more straightforward mechanics. But following Tesla Inc.’s lead, automakers have been bringing electric jobs in-house. And in 2022 researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, working with proprietary data from auto suppliers and leading manufacturers, concluded that the hundreds of steps involved in creating EVs could actually require more jobs per car, “at least in the short to medium term.” Some would be familiar (forklift drivers); others would involve bringing in house the kinds of jobs that are done today by outside parts makers, such as building motors and battery packs; still others would involve babysitting machines that churn out battery cells.

Team Biden is counting on this more recent model to continue gaining traction. “Auto companies are now more incentivized to take on ‘build’ rather than ‘buy’ strategies for their supply chains,” White House senior adviser Gene Sperling said in an email.

What this all means for US auto workers will depend on how many of those tasks eventually get automated or outsourced, how much say employees have about the quality of new jobs, and whether they get trained for them. Fain says that so far, workers have mostly been left behind. And that has soured some members on EVs for the foreseeable future. Jim Howell, a 34-year UAW member working for Ford in Kentucky, says he’s convinced that EVs mean fewer jobs and that Biden’s pro-union message rings hollow as long as he keeps pushing electrics. But plenty of members say they welcome the shift, as long as it includes them. “I grew up with VHS tapes, we went into laser disc and the DVD,” says Michigan GM employee Vince Gusty. “Why should cars be any different?”

While UAW members are counting on Fain to make their case to the Biden administration, Biden allies who worry about Trump riding an anti-EV backlash back into the White House are looking to Fain and his new political capital. “He needs to spend it helping with this,” says Kate Gordon, a former senior adviser to Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm. Gordon acknowledges, however, that workers’ skepticism is earned—that for decades, including during the Obama years, when Biden was vice president, “we essentially let the bottom fall out of the supply chain” for green energy, exacerbating the advantages of competitors overseas.

As president, Biden has tried to do things differently. He’s signed into law hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks, grants and loans for green energy initiatives, with various safeguards meant to ensure the resulting jobs don’t suck. Besides the incentives attached to the Energy Department’s August funding, the department has said agreements with unions could improve projects’ chances of getting government cash. And when the Ohio Ultium plant was seeking approval for a loan in 2022, Granholm twice called Barra to confirm employees there would have a fair chance to organize, according to the Biden administration. The union won, and the plant got its loan.

Still, several tougher legislative proposals died in the US Senate, including a tax credit for people who buy union-made cars and a ban on federal subsidies for companies that campaign against union organizing. Labor advocates have been calling for Biden to use the bully pulpit to support union drives and withhold federal funds from companies that persist in union-busting tactics. Sperling said in the email that Biden has shown he is “intent on doing everything that was legal and appropriate” to encourage money from his Inflation Reduction Act to “support not just American jobs, but good union jobs.”

To clinch worker support for the green energy transition, someone will have to prove to them it’s really worth their while, says Jennifer Harris, who served on Biden’s National Economic Council. After the Big Three wins, she says, “we might have fighting odds.” Harris says she hopes Fain will now help the automakers secure whatever government help they need to compete with EVs from China. “That’s going to require some give and take,” she says. “And creativity.”

Those calculations might get far more academic if Trump retakes the White House. “Whoever’s president is not going to deter our efforts,” Fain said during the January interview in Washington. He acknowledged, though, that “Trump is a master at telling people what they want to hear” and said the former president’s reelection “would be a disaster, because he’s anti-labor.” On Wednesday afternoon, Fain welcomed Biden to the UAW’s annual convention and announced that the union has endorsed his bid for reelection. “Donald Trump is a scab,” he said during a detailed speech assessing the words and actions of both candidates going back more than a decade. “It’s not about who you like, it’s not about your party, it’s not this bullshit about age. It’s not about anything but our best shot at taking back power for the working class.” Fain greeted Biden with a hug, and Biden donned a UAW cap and praised Fain as “a man with backbone — a backbone like a ramrod.”

For now, many traditional carmakers are still struggling to break even on their billions in EV development and scouring for savings as they ramp up manufacturing. On the other hand, GM announced a record $10 billion stock buyback weeks after reaching its deal with the UAW, confirming that Detroit’s cupboards aren’t exactly bare. In speeches, interviews and congressional testimony, Fain has underscored his jaundiced view of companies’ claims about their limitations. He is, however, more than happy to set a floor by organizing their competitors.

In December, at a Holiday Inn in eastern Kentucky, Fain showed his grandpa’s eight-decade-old Chrysler pay stub to members of the fledgling organizing committee at the nearby Toyota plant. He praised the assembled crew for their progress toward unionizing the plant, where the UAW has suffered several defeats. He also tried to prepare them for the company’s likely pushback, including by volunteering how much money he makes (about $200,000, as confirmed by federal filings), and noting that unlike the auto execs, his pay is decided by a union vote.

“I don’t believe in the word ‘can’t,’ ” Fain told the assembled employees. “Can’t is an excuse.” He took a series of handshakes and selfies with the group, some of whom wore their own “EAT THE RICH” shirts. “The vibe is different now,” says 29-year employee Jeff Allen, a veteran of the union’s past failed efforts. Last fall’s wins proved, he says, that “this is what’s possible if you stay together.”

Like Fain’s Detroit strike, this organizing push defies recent UAW tradition. Rather than training resources on a couple of relatively promising targets, he’s going after the whole industry at once, announcing his ambitions to the world and banking on recent momentum to notch some quick wins, as the Starbucks union did in 2022. While there have been disagreements within the UAW about which companies represent the lowest-hanging fruit, ultimately employees will decide. The union’s new website lets workers at any of the 13 companies’ nonunion plants sign cards online. Once organizers reach 30% support at a particular workplace, workers on the union committee there will publicly announce themselves. At 50%, they’ll do a big rally featuring Fain. At 70%, if the company won’t voluntarily agree to recognize their union, they’ll try to win a government-run election.

Judging by the companies’ actions, they don’t see it as an idle threat. Within a few weeks of the Detroit deals, Honda, Nissan and Toyota each announced raises for their nonunion staff. Tesla did the same in January, calling it a “market adjustment.” The UAW says it hit the 30% mark in December at a Volkswagen factory in Tennessee, and in January at a Mercedes plant in Alabama.

Fain’s approach could flop, of course, and cost the UAW its new clout. Big companies generally have the advantage in union elections, because federal law lets them hold mandatory anti-union meetings and imposes minimal penalties for illegal retaliation against labor organizers. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is investigating UAW complaints alleging such retaliation by Honda in Indiana, Rivian in Illinois and Hyundai in Alabama. (In a statement to Businessweek, Hyundai denied wrongdoing. Rivian declined to comment, and Honda didn’t respond to requests for comment.) Spreading resources across a bunch of companies, while tipping them all to the union’s plans, could backfire badly. “I think workers are ready,” Fain says. “I think now is the time.”

Tesla presents an especially alluring and tricky target. It’s the world’s most valuable automaker, the one synonymous with EVs and run by the galaxy’s richest troll. But there’s no boss more determined to avoid ceding control to workers. During the UAW’s last push at Tesla’s California factory, the NLRB ruled that the company repeatedly violated federal law, including by firing an activist named Richard Ortiz, “coercively interrogating” employees and using Musk’s pre-X Twitter account to threaten them. Last year, when Tesla workers in New York handed out Valentine-style cards announcing an organizing campaign with the union Workers United, the company fired dozens of people over the next two days. An NLRB regional director dismissed the union’s claim that the New York firings constituted illegal retaliation. Workers United is appealing the decision.

Even when companies do get into scrapes with the NLRB, it tends not to leave a mark. Appeals can drag on for years, and there’s no individual liability for executives or punitive damages for companies found to have broken the law. Ortiz was fired in 2017 and still hasn’t gotten his job back despite a series of rulings in his favor. His case is pending before the Louisiana-based Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which recently ruled in a different dispute that Tesla has the right to ban UAW T-shirts.

Tesla, which didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story, has denied wrongdoing in these cases.

Musk’s penchant for immolating money and reputations out of pique just deepens some employees’ hesitancy to cross him. “The more antics he does, the more people get scared,” says one. Some workers are convinced Musk would rather shut down the Fremont, California, plant than recognize a union there. During prior UAW organizing attempts, announced in 2017, the company posted anti-union messages above urinals, such as comparing joining a union to handing a stranger a blank check. Musk has also made hay of the UAW’s corruption scandals and noted that the last time the union represented staff on the Fremont property—then a GM-Toyota venture that made Pontiac Vibes and Toyota Matrixes—it eventually closed.

Fain says it’s no surprise the UAW couldn’t get traction at Tesla before, when the union was bogged down by its own scandals, corporate coziness and lousy contracts. Now, he says, “we can beat anybody.” Tesla’s Fremont factory will be a closely watched target. Black workers there have won millions of dollars in total judgments after alleging routine racial harassment and discrimination. The plant has its safety issues, too. Last April an employee was hospitalized with six broken ribs, having been pinned inside a Model Y after Tesla failed to ensure power was cut to a conveyor belt, according to a citation by California’s safety agency that Businessweek obtained through a public records request. (Tesla is appealing the citation.) Musk’s personal pivot to amplifying antisemitic social media bile and hyping Republican presidential also-rans could also dent his credibility with Bay Area staff.

“I disagree with the idea of unions,” Musk told New York Times journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin at a November conference, a bit after saying he was sorry for endorsing a tweet accusing Jewish people of “hatred against whites.” (This was the interview in which he told angry advertisers to “go f--- yourself.”) Unions create “a lords and peasants” situation, the real-life billionaire told the Billions co-creator. Unionization, he suggested, would represent a personal failure: If it happens, he said, it means “we deserve it.”

Fain isn’t angling for his own Musk face time. While two of his predecessors met with the CEO to see what common ground they might find, Fain says he doesn’t need to cut deals to organize Musk’s plant. “I don’t know what the point would be” of a chat, he says. When Tesla is unionized and it’s time to negotiate a contract, “maybe we’ll meet at the bargaining table.” —With Dana Hull, Keith Naughton and David Welch