photo of a man smiling

(Photo courtesy of Willie Adams)

Willie Adams’ mother wanted him to be a minister. He wanted to be a Hollywood star. Neither ever dreamed he’d make history.

In 2018, Adams was elected the first Black international president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). He is the union’s seventh president.

The ILWU, founded in 1937, is a labor union that represents 40,000 workers on the U.S. West Coast, Alaska, Hawaii, and in British Columbia, Canada. Their membership includes dock workers, people in the maritime trades, warehouse workers, hotel workers, and others.

“I knew nothing about unions when I was a kid,” Adams said. “I had no idea that I’d wind up in Tacoma and get involved in union politics.”

He arrived in Tacoma, Washington, in 1978 for a weekend visit to see a friend. Enchanted by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, he decided to stay. He found work on the Port of Tacoma docks, eventually earning a position as a member of ILWU Local 23. He made the leap to union politics nearly 20 years ago, serving five terms as international secretary-treasurer.

“Our union is one of those places where it doesn’t matter your background. If you’re a worker, there’s a place in our tent for you.”

Adams doesn’t see his election as groundbreaking, pointing to the fact that the union had a Black international vice president, Bill Chester, and two Black secretary-treasurers, Leon Harris and Curtis McLain, before he took office. Civil rights and racial equity have long been central tenets of the ILWU, he noted, with founder Harry Bridges encouraging the desegregation of work gangs in the 1930s.

photo of a man speaking in front of other people

Adams speaking at the 2020 Juneteenth rally in Oakland. (Photo courtesy of Roy San Filippo, ILWU Communications Department)

“Our union is one of those places where it doesn’t matter your background. If you’re a worker, there’s a place in our tent for you,” Adams said. “That’s the way it should be. There shouldn’t be exclusion.”

His three-year term has had its share of challenges, though none have felt as insurmountable as those of 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic, plummeting cargo volumes due to the economic recession, and a social justice movement ignited by the killing of George Floyd. It was a year that tested every leader.

“Hard times reveal your character,” Adams noted. “Leaders lead when everything goes wrong. You have to be able to deal with adversity.”

Strong leadership requires teamwork, Adams believes, so he empowers his fellow officers and leans on their strengths. Ultimately, Adams said any power he has comes from the members of the ILWU. In his words, he’s “keeping the seat warm for the next person.”

“The strength of our union has always been the membership,” Adams said. “The leaders just get to be the mouthpiece and speak, but the true power is the membership.”

During his time in Tacoma, Adams worked to highlight the perspectives of Black people, women and the working class by producing “Celebrations of Black History and Labor” with fellow ILWU member Mike Chambers.

Over several years, the free community event brought a variety of Black leaders and cultural icons to share their stories and experiences. Speakers included the daughters of civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., actor Danny Glover, actor Ossie Davis, actress Cicely Tyson, baseball legend Buck O’Neil, rapper Chuck D, hip-hop artist Public Enemy, Nelson Mandela’s grandson Prince Cedza Dlamini, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, the great-grandson of Frederick Douglass, and Olympic champion Dominique Dawes.

“We all are here for a reason,” Adams said. “And to be able to do something that’s bigger than yourself and be a part of something big, I feel this gave me the opportunity.”

Meet Willie Adams

Hometown: Kansas City, Missouri

Thoughts on Tacoma:

“Tacoma is a place that has so much potential, and I just believe it has yet to reach its peak, what it’s going to be able to accomplish. It’s a blue-collar town, but it’s starting to spread its wings. It’s on the verge of greatness.”

Best advice received:

He cited Socrates: “Smart people learn from everything and everyone, average people from their experiences, stupid people already have all the answers.”

What he wanted to be when he grew up:

The next Denzel Washington

Thoughts on leadership:

  • “The greatest thing you can do is prepare the next generation to take over and have a vision to peek outside the box.”
  • “You have to know when it’s time to go. Leadership is knowing that you can still lead, but you don’t have to be the person.”