Union Chief Willie Adams Steers a Tough Course Through Port Labor Negotiations

Date: Thursday, September 8, 2022
Source: Wall Street Journal

Willie Adams has the power to scuttle or sustain the U.S. supply-chain recovery, if he can keep his own union in line.

For the first time since he was elected president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in 2018, Mr. Adams is leading labor negotiations with the 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 largest ocean-shipping firms and the Biden administration are watching to see if Mr. Adams can steer his combative membership, including local chapters with varied agendas, toward a deal that would bring a measure of labor peace to maritime operations integral to the American economy.

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

The contract negotiations, which began in May, aren’t close to a resolution, according to people familiar with the talks.

To get a deal with the Pacific Maritime Association, which is leading labor talks on behalf of employers, Mr. Adams must corral more than 22,000 dockworkers at 29 ports with grievances ranging from fighting automation at the sprawling ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in Southern California to more local but highly contentious concerns at sites up the coast to the Pacific Northwest.

An ILWU spokeswoman, Jennifer Sargent Bokaie, said the union has 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 that led to its formation with a paid holiday every July 5, a day the union calls “Bloody Thursday.” On that date in 1934, police shot and killed two people who supported a West Coast longshoremen’s strike, and wounded many others.

Labor actions are common during the negotiations, which take place about every six years. Some dockworkers are already flexing their muscles, according to shipping-industry officials. They said workers at the Port of Tacoma, Wash., didn’t staff a night shift in August at a cargo-handling facility because of a disagreement over CPR training. At APM Terminals, the A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S subsidiary that manages the largest cargo-handling facility at the Port of Los Angeles, dockworkers are declining to work in a section that uses automated container-handling equipment after raising safety concerns, the shipping-industry officials said.

Ms. Sargent Bokaie, of the ILWU, said safety is paramount in dangerous longshore work. “Accidents on the docks can be catastrophic, and we need to be vigilant about worker safety every day,” she said.

People familiar with the talks said the work disruptions haven’t affected coastwide operations but they are raising concerns as the talks drag. The negotiations have stalled for about a month this summer because of a disagreement between the ILWU and another union about whose workers can maintain equipment at a cargo-handling terminal at the Port of Seattle.

For now, many big American importers are shifting some of their inbound goods from the West Coast to ports on the Gulf and East coasts, in part to guard against potential disruptions in case the contract talks break down.

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

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

His predecessor, “Big” Bob McEllrath, is a 6-foot-4, table-pounding, second-generation longshoreman who held the president’s post for 12 years.

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

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

When he was 20, Mr. Adams visited a friend, the Olympic gold medalist flyweight boxer Leo Randolph, in Tacoma. He liked coastal life so much he stayed and found work laying tracks for the BNSF Railway before securing a job as a longshoreman.

Mr. Adams and a friend organized and helped finance Black History Month events in Tacoma beginning in the mid-1990s. Soon afterward, he became involved in union politics and by 2003, he was elected to a senior post, ILWU secretary-treasurer.

People who know Mr. Adams describe him as smart, measured and a consensus builder. In an interview Mr. Adams gave for the ILWU’s oral-history collection, set to be published in a book, he described a union debate in 2017 between workers who wanted to extend an expiring labor contract and those who wanted to fight for a new deal.

Some members believed it showed weakness to extend the contract. Mr. Adams advocated for the extension, arguing that it was a mistake to open talks when Republicans controlled the House, the Senate and the White House. In the interview, he invoked the memory of the ILWU’s earliest leaders, 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 labor-friendly Democrats control both houses of Congress and the White House.

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

Mr. Adams has said the carriers are making massive profits off the backs of workers who risked their lives to keep cargo flowing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We’re on the side of America and good jobs over automating away jobs for the sake of foreign profits,” he said.


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