Tensions rise during Senate hearing with union leaders as UAW voting continues

The hearing at one point devolved into an angry confrontation after Republican Sen. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma challenged Teamsters President Sean O’Brien to a fight.

FILE - United Auto Workers members walk in the Labor Day parade in Detroit, Sept. 2, 2019.

FILE - United Auto Workers members walk in the Labor Day parade in Detroit, Sept. 2, 2019.

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain and other labor leaders were invited to the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee Tuesday to share testimony about their ongoing fight for fair labor practices.

At the hearing, Fain said the nation needs a “workers Congress” that addresses wage and retirement issues and the transition to a green economy, citing recent polls that show most Americans back the union’s fight for higher wages and benefits.

“The American public overwhelmingly supported what we’ve done; 75% of Americans said they supported our initiatives,” he said. “The American public is fed up with an economy that works for the benefit of the billionaire class at the expense of the working class.”

Still, despite tentative contracts in place with Detroit’s Big Three automakers, Fain may still have work to do. General Motors workers at plants in three states, and Ford workers at the Kentucky Truck Plant, have rejected the deals — though it’s unclear how much that will affect the overall vote.

Depending on the vote totals at other plants, that could spell trouble for the contracts that increase wages and retirement benefits, as well as pledge billions of dollars for new investments.

Ratification vote totals are expected to be announced later this month.

A fiery exchange

At one point in the hearing, the testimony devolved into an angry confrontation between Republican Sen. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma — a frequent critic of union leadership — and International Brotherhood of Teamsters President Sean O’Brien, after the senator asked O’Brien to “stand your butt up” and settle longstanding differences right there in the room.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the chairman of the Senate panel and a longtime union ally, pleaded with them to focus on the economic issues that were the focus of the hearing, which Sanders was holding to review how unions help working families.

Mullin reportedly stood up from his seat at the dais during the exchange and appeared to start taking his ring off. The two went on to trade angry insults for several more minutes — behavior that Sanders later referred to as “absurd.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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  • Russ McNamara
    Russ McNamara is the host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. He's been an avid listener of WDET since he moved to metro Detroit in 2002.