Union leader Willie Adams leads a difficult course in port labor negotiations

Willie Adams has the power to scuttle or support America’s supply chain recovery, if he can keep his own union in line.

For the first time since being elected president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in 2018, Mr. Adams is leading labor negotiations with companies that run cargo-handling sites at west coast ports that are the country’s main gateways for trade with Asia.

Major importers and exporters, the world’s biggest shipping companies and the Biden administration are watching to see if Mr. Adams can steer his combative members, including local chapters with varied agendas, toward a deal that would bring a measure from labor peace to maritime operations integral to the American economy.

“He’s very powerful, but also bear in mind that he’s under a lot of pressure from locals,” said Joe Miniace, a former leader of the Pacific Maritime Association employers’ group that led acrimonious talks. 20 years ago in which employers locked out workers for days, triggering major business disruptions.

Contract negotiations, which began in May, are nowhere near a resolution, according to people familiar with the talks.

To secure a deal with the Pacific Maritime Association, which conducts labor negotiations on behalf of employers, Mr Adams must unite more than 22,000 dockworkers at 29 ports with grievances ranging from fighting automation at sprawling ports from Los Angeles and Long Beach in Southern California to more local but highly controversial concerns at sites along the coast to the Pacific Northwest.

An ILWU spokeswoman, Jennifer Sargent Bokaie, said the union had been negotiating such agreements for 90 years and “remains as strong and united as ever”.

The ILWU, which describes itself as democratic and militant, commemorates the events leading to its formation with a paid public holiday each July 5, a day the union calls “Bloody Thursday”. On this date in 1934, police shot and killed two people who were supporting a strike by West Coast longshoremen and injured many others.

ILWU President Willie Adams speaking at a press conference earlier this year.


Allison Zaucha/Bloomberg News

Industrial actions are frequent during negotiations, which take place approximately every six years. Some dockworkers are already flexing their muscles, according to shipping industry officials. They said workers at the port of Tacoma, Washington, did not work an overnight shift in August at a cargo-handling facility because of a disagreement over CPR training. At APM Terminals, the subsidiary of AP Moller-Maersk A/S that operates the Port of Los Angeles’ largest cargo-handling facility, dockworkers are refusing to work in a section that uses automated container-handling equipment after raised issues of safety, transportation – industry officials said.

Ms Sargent Bokaie of the ILWU said that safety is paramount in hazardous shore work. “Dock accidents can be catastrophic and we need to be vigilant every day about worker safety,” she said.

People familiar with the talks said the labor disruptions had not affected coast-wide operations, but were raising concerns as the talks dragged on. Negotiations have been stalled for about a month this summer due to a disagreement between the ILWU and another union over which workers can service equipment at a handling terminal at the Port of Seattle.

For now, many large U.S. importers are shifting some of their inbound cargo from the West Coast to ports on the Gulf and East Coasts, in part to guard against potential disruptions should the contract negotiations.

The Pacific Maritime Association and the ILWU agreed not to discuss the negotiations while they were ongoing. But Mr. Adams responded in writing to questions about his background and goals.

“I think you can win the war and keep the peace.”

—Willie Adams

“My goal is to move the union forward in a militant and progressive way,” he said. “I think you can win the war and keep the peace.”

His predecessor, “Big” Bob McEllrath, is a 6-foot-4, table-thumping, second-generation tank top who served as president for 12 years.

Mr. Adams, the ILWU’s first African-American leader, is the soft-spoken son of a construction contractor and school cafeteria manager raised far from the ocean in Missouri.

He said he was considered calm as a boy growing up in a working-class, mostly African-American neighborhood in Kansas City, but said his looks should not be mistaken for a lack of thoughtful determination. “Sometimes people can confuse a calm nature with arrogance,” he said. “But sometimes you’re just more observant.”

When he was 20, Mr. Adams visited a friend, Olympic gold medal-winning flyweight boxer Leo Randolph, in Tacoma. He loved the coastal life so much that he stayed and found work laying tracks for the BNSF Railroad before getting a job as a stevedore.

Mr. Adams and a friend organized and helped fund Black History Month events in Tacoma beginning in the mid-1990s. Soon after, he became involved in labor politics and in 2003, he was elected to a senior position, secretary-treasurer of the ILWU.

Mr Adams, wearing a headscarf, at a march event with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and members of the ILWU.


US Department of Labor

People who know Mr. Adams describe him as smart, measured and a consensus builder. In an interview Mr. Adams gave for the ILWU Oral History Collection, which is expected to be published in a book, he described a 2017 union debate between workers who wanted to extend an expiring contract of employment and those who wanted to fight for a new agreement. .

Some members felt it was weak to extend the contract. Mr Adams argued for the extension, arguing it was a mistake to open talks when Republicans controlled the House, Senate and White House. In the interview, he invoked the memory of the early leaders of the ILWU, who he said “knew when to fight and when not to fight, and when they fought, they fought on their own ground. “.

The union extended the contract. Now its leaders are negotiating as pro-labor Democrats control both houses of Congress and the White House.

President Biden has railed against overseas-based shipping carriers, many of whom are board members of the Pacific Maritime Association, for charging skyrocketing rates to ship goods during the pandemic.

Mr Adams said hauliers were making huge profits on the backs of workers who risked their lives to keep goods flowing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We’re on the side of America and good jobs rather than automating jobs for foreign profit,” he said.

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Write to Paul Berger at [email protected]

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