UAW Challenger Fain Purges Top Allies in Favor of Brooklyn Consultants 

Shawn Fain is the first UAW challenger to defeat an incumbent in the UAW's 80-year history, but after he purged his top staff, questions remain about his commitment (Eric Seals/ Detroit Free Press)

PITTSBURGH, PA. – The federal monitor of the UAW presidential election, Neil Barofsky, is expected to declare this week that UAW challenger Shawn Fain has defeated incumbent UAW President Ray Curry. Observers on both sides agree that Fain, a 56-year-old native of Indiana, will win by several hundred votes, but the results are likely to be challenged by Curry, who will likely ask federal election observers for a re-vote. 

Fain’s victory marks the first time in the union’s nearly 80-year history that a challenger has defeated the incumbent for the presidency of the powerful 400,000-member union. 

Left-wing magazines have begun to hail Fain as a progressive hero with glowing profiles in Jacobin, In These Times Magazine, and Labor Notes hailing that its “It’s a New Day in the United Auto Workers.”

However, Payday Report has learned Fain has already fired his previously-chosen chief of staff, Joe Rioux, and most of his previously chosen top senior staffers. 

The mass firings come after Rioux and former top Fain’s staffers raised concerns about racial diversity in their leadership and the top-down nature of a controversial Brooklyn-based union consultant and “labor media famous” 35-year-old labor writer named Chris Brooks. After other staffers voiced similar concerns, Fain also fired top allies, including Anna Bakalis, Jonathan Smuckler, Sarah Saheb, and Allison Troy. Later, Susan Pratt chose to resign in solidarity with them. 

Rioux addressed concerns regarding the dismissal of Fain’s previously selected senior leadership team and its implication for the UAW reform movement in a 5-page memo written on Feb. 22, after his dismissal.

In the memo, Rioux drew particular issue with the role of the controversial Brooklyn-based union consultant, Brooks, who currently serves as the field director of the extremely influential New York NewsGuild. Brooks, a well connected labor social media influencer, played a key role in helping Fain garner votes among the 1/3rd of the union’s membership that is now made up of university graduate student employees. 

However, among Black labor leaders, Brooks has never been very popular. Fain’s senior top staffers had expressed their concern about naming an inexperienced social media savvy former labor writer to a top leadership position with the very racially diverse UAW. The union’s current incumbent president, Ray Curry, is a 58-year old Black man from North Carolina.

In June of 2022  Brooks drew heavy criticism when he dismissed the possibility that Black Lives Matter was inspiring a massive upsurge of strike activities, leading prominent Black labor leaders to criticize him in an extended piece for Payday Report.

Payday Report has obtained the five-page memo in which Rioux  voiced similar concerns that Brooks, an affluent white union organizer, routinely downplayed and short-shifted the perspectives of Black workers. Furthermore, the group of close Fain allies expressed deep concerns that the 35-year-old, who Fain has chosen as his right-hand man despite having never worked for UAW or being a member of  a UAW bargaining unit, operated in a style that could severely hurt the UAW reform movement. 

“My concerns and the concerns shared by the team members listed above are that Chris has assumed a role in the transition and in your future administration that he does not possess the experience or personal maturity to carry out,” Rioux wrote. “In a short time, his lack of transparency, his need for control over departmental discussions, his need to control access to you, and his apparent lack of ability to work in a real collaborative manner became apparent.”

(Read the full 5-page memo from Rioux here) 

Rioux memo included a memo from Feb. 17 written by former UAW Smuckler, one of the staffers fired by Fain. In his own memo, Smuckler voiced deep concerns about the failure of Fain’s new team to take matters of racial diversity seriously. 

In addition to the UAW’s current president, Ray Curry, who is African American, the union’s vice president, Cindy Estrada, is the first Latina labor leader in the union. Curry’s allies have already signaled that they intend to challenge union election results and call for a re-do election under federal law. Smuckler warned that if their team didn’t improve their relations with black and brown leaders, it could create an opening for Curry to win a new union election. 

Smuckler also said that Brooks, as Fain’s right-hand man, had upset several prominent black and brown organizers who had considered helping the Fain administration of the UAW. 

“Three individuals, who I connected to Chris, came back with very negative experiences of their conversations,” Smuckler wrote. “I also became frustrated that both Anna and I were strongly suggesting Bill Fletcher as an experienced and trusted Black labor leader who could bring either temporary or permanent capacity to the transition leadership, and to learn that Chris didn’t bring up Bill to either Shawn or Joe.” 

Previously, Brooks and Bill Fletcher, the first Black education director of the AFL-CIO, had clashed in high-profile exchange over comments that Brooks had made disparaging strikes by non-union Black workers following protests over the Minneapolis police killing George Floyd in 2020. 

The power struggle within the UAW raises serious questions about what type of reform the new leadership of the UAW intends to undertake. Brooks’ role in this reform has been controversial. Rioux warned in his memo that Brooks was essentially assuming powers as an almost de-facto chief of staff, writing that Brooks was creating a position within the UAW leadership that is ” in direct conflict with my role as Chief of Staff.” 

A pattern of Racism & Opportunism by UAW’s Incoming Chief of Staff 

Chris Brooks (right) attending Labor Notes Convention in 2014 (Mike Elk/Payday Report)

Brooks has risen in less than a decade from relative obscurity as a community organizer in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to the role of the Fain’s right hand-man.

How a relatively unknown union organizer rose so quickly in union leadership raises questions about a new class of younger labor leaders, who have been propelled to influence in large part through their ability to control and manipulate the left labor press. 

I first met Brooks in the fall of 2013, covering the UAW’s failed attempt to unionize Volkswagen’s massive in Chattanooga. He was employed as a union organizer for the Tennessee Education Association. Brooks was a charismatic evangelical Southern Baptist who had organized around progressive churches with support from some of the more left-leaning churches behind his organization Chattanooga Organized for Action (COA).      

Upon arriving in Chattanooga that winter, Black activists in town had warned me that his approach to organizing had been seen as “arrogant” and that he had angered many prominent Black activists in the area, who felt he had no idea how to talk to black people Eventually, Black activists under the leadership of Ash-Lee Henderson, who now serves as co-director at the Highlander Center, angered by Brook’s failure to include them, broke off from Brooks’ group COA to form Concerned Citizens for Justice. 

When the UAW lost the union vote by a margin of 626 (yes) to 717 (no), with many workers citing the corruption of the UAW in their logic for voting no, Brooks rocketed to national prominence as a spokesperson for Southern union organizers trying to do things differently than the UAW. Suddenly, Brooks was asked to write for national publications like Jacobin, The Nation, and the Intercept and appear at big conferences, telling Northern audiences tales of organizing in distant regions of the South, of which they had not heard. 

Eventually, Brooks used his growing left media prominence to get accepted to the prestigious labor studies graduate program at the University of U-Mass Amherst, working full-time for the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) while part-time writing his masters’ thesis on why the UAW’s efforts failed in Chattanooga. 

Brooks regularly quoted Volkswagen workers, upset with UAW workers, to get his stories published in national publications. Eventually, though, the UAW leaned on him, and he agreed to stop publicizing calls for workers to abandon the UAW and form their independent unions. 

In May of 2014, then-UAW President Bob King sent a letter obtained by Payday Report to Brook’s employer at the TEA asking Brooks to stop interfering in UAW’s organizing efforts. He promptly dropped all efforts to help upset Volkswagen workers form an independent union as he searched for a way to get out of the TEA, eventually landing a position in Brooklyn as a staff writer for the publication Labor Notes in early 2016

Many Volkswagen workers felt burned as Brooks abandoned efforts to form an independent union at the plant and stopped writing about their perspectives to split entirely from the UAW. 

“As soon as he had any skin in the game, he capitulated and threw in with the UAW even knowing the deceitful and secretive tactics their organizers were using,” said Lon Gravett, a Volkswagen worker at the plant, whose workon the union drive was featured in the New York Times. “He’s only trustworthy as long it serves his own personal interest.” 

Despite having written various criticisms of the incumbent UAW leadership for nearly a decade, Brooks never wrote that his job as a union organizer with TEA had been threatened by former UAW President Bob King, a severe violation of journalistic ethics for any labor reporter. 

(Ironically, King is now a close adviser to UAW challenger Fain; finding himself oddly on the same side of an internal UAW fight with Brooks, whose job he was once threatened)

In early 2016, Brooks took a job as a staff writer at Labor Notes. Charismatic and witty in his thick Southern drawl, he quickly became an unusual voice in the New York left media world; he quickly found himself being quoted in the New York Times and interviewed on NPR. 

“On the auto workers beat, Chris’s reporting and organizing have fed one another, wrote Alexandra Bradbury, executive director of Labor Notes, whose publication has attracted criticism for accepting large donations from the union leaders that they are supposed to be covering. “No other outlet matched the depth of his coverage of the long fight to organize the Volkswagen plant in his hometown of Chattanooga”. 

In 2020, he took over as the field director of the 3,000-member New York Media Guild, an influential unit in the UAW. With labor social media influencers often promoting each others workers, there is a natural disincentive not to promote or criticize other labor leaders with large social media followings or risk not getting your work promoted. 

As a power player in the labor social media influencer world, Brooks shot down criticism of union democracy faults within the NewsGuild, where he was employed, while calling them out in other unions, where his allies were plotting leadership takeovers. Leadership takeovers that often benefits unions associated with these groups. 

Using his extensive social media network of Brooklyn media power players, Brooks publicly downplayed the cover-up of sexual misconduct with the NewsGuild that was first exposed by Payday Report and later independently confirmed by the New York Times. 

When over 100 New York Times reporters wrote a letter protesting the lack of budget transparency within the New York Media Guild, Brooks publicly defended the local union against the interests of union democracy. 

Dismissing Top Black Lives Matter Activists During the Strike Wave

In June of 2020, when Black Lives Matter activists helped lead more than 500 strikes in a month, Brook’s reputation for diminishing and upsetting Black activists continued. Brooks attacked Payday Report’s Strike Tracker and others for counting strikes of non-union BLM activists as strikes. 

Echoing “class reductionist” popular among white Brooklyn socialists, Brooks warned the labor movement against celebrating the walkouts in solidarity with Black Lives Matter by non-union black and brown workers. 

 “There’s a significant difference in whose power is being deployed,” wrote Brooks for the Brooklyn-based publication “Organizing Work.” “With so many businesses joining in symbolic actions to proclaim their support for black lives, conflating this with striking runs the risk of letting exploitative employers off the hook by giving them good PR without examining how they actually treat their black workers.”

Cautioning the labor movement against celebrating the non-traditional work strike movement, he wrote: “What is most worrisome is that this kind of equivocating reinforces bad organizing.”

In a sign of Brook’s inability to understand how Black and Brown’s workers were redefining strike, Brooks reassured his readers that there was no strike wave going on during the pandemic. 

“We all want to cheer labor on, but we’re not doing it any favors by pretending there is a spontaneous wildcat strike wave unrolling in support of racial justice when that is not the case,” Brooks wrote in June of 2020. 

Leading Black activists were outraged that Brooks’s article was widely shared, including by the AFL-CIO’s Facebook account. 

“People, who wouldn’t call them strikes, aren’t looking at history,” veteran labor organizer Bill Fletcher Jr, who previously served as education director of the AFL-CIO, told Payday Report at the time. (Ironically, Brooks was criticized in the Rioux memo for refusing to meet with Fletcher, who recently helped lead a successful, multiracial campaign to unionize more than 5,000 minor league baseball players)

University of St. Louis labor law professor Mike Duff, a Black native of West Philadelphia who got his start as a baggage handler there, was even more outraged at Brook’s dismissal of the movement. 

“It reinforces the idea that some white labor activists see issues solely in terms of class and underemphasize the impact of race in labor conflict,” Duff told Payday in 2020. “It unnecessarily siphons enthusiasm out of the labor movement along racial lines,”. 

Brooks never publicly responded to any critiques from some of the nation’s leading black and brown activists. In countless attempts by Payday Report to do so, he has never responded to our reporting. However, Payday Report is eager to run his comments if he does respond, given his prominent role as the right-hand man to the incoming president of the UAW. 

A Dangerous Moment for UAW Reformers

As Brooks is set to take a top leadership position next to incoming UAW President  Fain, Brooks has refused to respond to many within the union when faced criticism. 

“I also think [Brooks] has some blinders and there are big matters that are well beyond his experience and skillset,” Smuckler wrote in a widely distributed memo among incoming top UAW staff. “There are things I’m not good at. There are roles that each of us is not the best person for. But it’s my assessment that Chris does not necessarily even see his blindspots.” 

Smuckler worried in his widely distributed memo that Brooks was too top-down and authoritarian in his leadership style. 

I think you can’t run a giant powerful union like the UAW without sharing and delegating power,” wrote Smuckler in the memo. “To pull something like this off, you have to unleash forces that you can influence, but not fully control. If you can fully control everyone you’re bringing in, then you’re not bringing in the kind of leaders you need”

Despite multiple attempts to reach out to incoming UAW President Shawn Fain, did not respond to request for comment. 

In conclusion of his memo, Smuckler warned that if Fain as incoming UAW President wasn’t careful about, who he keeps around him in top leadership positions, that UAW reformers could squander a crucial moment. 

“I want to make this moment one for the history books. I want to help reinvigorate the labor movement and win big things. I think we can. But we have to get this right,” wrote Smuckler in the Feb. 17 memo. “As much as we respect Chris and what he’s done, none of the other competent leaders who I’ve come to know and trust these past couple weeks are willing to work under him like this.”

Five days later, Fain fired Smuckler from his staff; a cautionary tale of the limits of union democracy revival within the UAW. 

Donate to Payday Report to Help Us Cover the Fight for Union Democracy 

About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

Be the first to comment on "UAW Challenger Fain Purges Top Allies in Favor of Brooklyn Consultants "

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.