G.W. “Billy” Adams, Jr., discovered a series of old wooden plaques tucked away during some recent cleaning of his office at the S.C. Stevedores Association headquarters in Mount Pleasant.
At a glance
Name: G.W. “Billy” Adams, Jr.
Title: Executive Director of S.C. Stevedores Association for last 15 years
Education: Armstrong College
Stevedore: A group of supervising personnel who overlook the labor done by the longshoremen.
The plaques, honoring work with Propeller Club of Charleston and National Transportation Week, offered a glimpse of Adams’ activities during his roughly five decades in the maritime community.
“They were reminiscent,” Adams said. “I looked at them and said ‘I remember that.’”
Adams has been the executive director of the state’s stevedore association for more than 15 years. Stevedores are one of the many groups charged with making sure cargo makes its way through South Carolina’s ports.
Stevedores supervise the work done by the longshoremen, who move cargo from ships to shore.
Adams, 67, is considered something of an institution in Charleston’s maritime community. He moved from Savannah to Charleston in 1988, and has worked as a stevedore and been involved in many maritime groups and activities in the state. In addition to sitting on the board of directors for nonprofits like The Maritime Association of South Carolina, Adams has been dubbed a sounding board and mentor for many dockworkers.
The list of former mentees include President and CEO of the S.C. State Ports Authority Jim Newsome, who interned at Strachan Shipping Company for a few summers in the early and mid-1970s, working for Adams on the Savannah waterfront.
“It was a modern day reality TV show, some things you simply could not make up,” Newsome said. “Aside from helping me geometrically expand my four-letter vocabulary, to the chagrin of my parents, Billy Adams was a selfless mentor who gave me lots of encouragement in terms of embarking on a shipping career.”
Newsome dubs Adams “one of the most experienced people in the industry.”
“He has done a great job for the South Carolina Stevedores and the port in general,” Newsome said.
Pam Zaresk, president of the Maritime Association of South Carolina, said Adams was key in the re-establisment of the group in 1992 and has been a key member of the group’s board.
“His knowledge of the history of all entities involved in the maritime industry is extremely valuable to the organization,” she said. “He’s one of our biggest supporters and is considered a ‘go to’ guy for everything from dedicating his time to plan, organize and participate in MASC events to providing context for issues of concern to the industry.”
The years of experience — dockside and even in his office in Mount Pleasant — has built a sea of knowledge that Adams says makes him a valuable asset to dock workers in the state.
“Years of experience helps us because we know what happened and how we got here,” Adams said. “The young guys don’t know how they got here. If you don’t know how you got here you will not have a chance to stay here.”
After years in the Georgia Air National Guard and a stint at a bank, Adams was lured to the ports in Savannah by the prospect of a $500 per month salary and the potential for overtime, he said.
“It was 1972 back then, and I said the overtime will make it worth it because I was making about $500 at the bank,” he said. “I was ready for change and that was an opportunity to do that.”
Adams started at the docks about the time shippers were shifting from non-containerized— better known in the industry as break bulk — to cargo loaded into boxed containers. Adams’ called non-containerized cargo a harder task that included long shifts.
“It was more labor intense, but to me it was more satisfying to know you have that much space to put cargo in and when you finished you could look back and see you did a good job,” he said. “Now with containers it’s just a back and forth and you have no idea what is in there.”
Adams ties much of his discipline and hard work to his high school years at Benedictine Military School in Savannah, right down to the Citadel-like uniforms.
“What I am, Benedictine helped to make me and that has always been my philosophy,” he said.
Adams, who is a storyteller, chronicles some history of Charleston Harbor, including how the landscape has evolved over the decades.
“I can remember when Columbus Street Terminal and even North Charleston being just rows of warehouses, and eventually they were torn down for the container space,” he said.
After making his way up the ladder as a stevedore and into a supervisory role, Adams was offered a chance to work as a stevedore at Port of Charleston. The task meant working the docks at Charleston Harbor and regularly trekking the 100 miles to Savannah to be with his four children.
It’s been something of a tradition that dockworkers are born into the profession, sometimes spanning generations who work the terminals.
Years ago, Adams tried to offer jobs to his two sons.
“I won’t say which one said this, but one of my sons said ‘dad I don’t want to ever have to work as hard as you did’,” Adams said. “That tells you how they saw how I did my job and the long hours.”
Adams said one part of his job as the director of the association is to dispel the misconceptions of stevedores.
That includes some people incorrectly believing the group works for SPA, in addition to not knowing their distinction from longshoremen.
“The stevedore is the liaison between the shipping companies like MSC and Maersk and the labor,” Adams explains. “The longshoremen are the ones who do the actual loading and unloading of the vessels.”
That means Adams had to build relationship with shipping companies, SPA and the International Longshoremen Association.
Adams says his largest role is to make sure work issues are resolved, including labor contracts. That task includes everything from grievances to labor contract negotiations.
Dock workers have peppered newspaper headlines in the last year due to contract negotiations about a master contract between the ILA and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, a group representing shipping lines, terminal operators and port associations.
The ILA, which represents roughly 14,500 workers at the Port of Charleston and 14 others that extend south from Boston, threatened to strike late last year.
The scenario would have meant 1,600 ILA workers in South Carolina would have walked off the job, crippling operations at the waterfront.
The feuding sides later agreed on a contract. But, Adams says there still remains negotiations for the local labor contract.
Adams stopped short of citing specifics being negotiated in the local contract, but voiced optimism that the final details will be resolved shortly.
Kenneth Riley, president of the International Longshormen Local 1422 union in Charleston, said he has disagreements with Adams during the negotiations, but he knows they share a similar focus.
“I can tell you I’ve been absolutely blessed to have Billy on the other side of table,” Riley said. “I know he is a guy who has been in the trenches and cares for the workers. We share the same goal to keep the ports productive and take care of the workers and their safety.”
In addition to a new labor contract for the local ILA, Adams said the ports should grow production once SPA institutes a new computerization system for its cargo flow.
As for Adams, he’s planning to stay at the helm of the stevedore association for “a few more years.”
“The waterfront has been good to me and I hope I’ve been good for the waterfront,” Adams said.
Reach Tyrone Richardson at 843-937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.