‘It Still Feels Like Family Here’

 

August 2013

 

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IAFF Official Proudly Recalls Seafaring Father

 

As a child, the old SIU hall on East Baltimore Street “almost seemed like a big playground” to Edward C. Smith, who occasionally went there on weekends with his dad, the late SIU Representative Ed Smith.

 

“When you’re a little kid, it was fun to go to work with your father,” Smith recalled. “It was something to look forward to.”

 

But the son’s appreciation for the union definitely wasn’t limited to those trips to the hall. Calmly but firmly, the elder Smith regularly reminded his son, “Those shoes on your feet and those clothes on your back are because of the SIU.”

 

In some ways, that sentiment helped develop Ed Jr. into a lifelong trade unionist.

 

Local President

 

Edward C. Smith, 42, currently serves as president of Local 36 of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), based in Washington, D.C. He holds the rank of captain – and doesn’t want to figuratively climb the ladder too far, because it would mean he’d have to leave the union.

 

This summer, at the invitation of SIU President Michael Sacco, he reacquainted with the Seafarers during visits to the union-affiliated Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education, located in Piney Point, Md., and to SIU headquarters in Camp Springs, Md.

 

“I’m happy to reconnect with the Seafarers Union after all these years,” Smith stated. “My father (who died in 2006, at age 79) was proud to no end of the Seafarers and I carry that same pride with me today. Even though I’m not a direct member, it still feels like family here.”

 

He added, “I’m so impressed by Piney Point. The SIU has an opportunity to train new members right from the start, and also teach them what the union is all about. That’s phenomenal, that opportunity. It makes me want a national training academy for the Fire Fighters in D.C…. There’s a model to be learned from Piney Point.”

 

Starting Young

 

For Ed Sr., the lure of the sea surfaced at a young age. Born near Boston, he was living in Prince Edward Island, Canada, when he ran away from home at age 15, in 1942. He immediately began sailing on Canadian ships supporting the war effort – not uncommon for boys of that age at the time.

 

He later switched to U.S.-flag ships and joined the SIU in 1947; he’d sail with the union for the next 10 years, including voyages as a chief steward.

 

“He was tough, and he could tell you stories about any port because he had been all around the world,” Ed Jr. recalled. “But he ended up in Baltimore in the 1950s. He said when he sailed up the Chesapeake Bay, he fell in love with the sights. He was waiting for a ship and someone offered him a job at the cafeteria in the union hall, and that’s what got him started on the land side. He ended up working 25 years (retiring in 1982) and moved up along the way.”

 

Both President Sacco and SIU Executive Vice President Augie Tellez worked with the elder Smith, and both described him as a dedicated official. Sacco added that Smith also helped facilitate steward department upgrading opportunities in Piney Point.

 

Looking Back

 

Ed Jr. still has many fond memories of his father, including the last 10 years of his life, when they shared a residence. (They were close but, in the son’s words, stubborn – Ed Jr. said his wife sometimes stepped away if the father-son discussions became too animated.)

 

He now laughs at suggestions from 25 years ago when his father urged him to learn Chinese, because he was convinced China would become a superpower and knowing the language would give his son an edge. The younger Smith balked at the time but now appreciates his father’s foresight.

 

He always appreciated his dad’s union pride, too, as well as his helpfulness and insights.

 

“He was so proud of the Seafarers and his merchant marine service,” Smith recalled. “He was always pro-labor on everything and was very active in grassroots politics. He was also very supportive, always. He wasn’t pushy about formal education but he definitely wanted to see me get a career and be successful. As he put it, ‘I don’t care if you’re a trash collector hanging off the back of the truck – just be the best trash man out there.’”

 

Almost Sailed

 

Ironically for the younger Smith, the effectiveness of union representation stopped him from following in his father’s footsteps up the gangway.

 

He had joined a local volunteer fire house near Baltimore “and I just got the bug. It seemed natural and I wanted to make a career out of it.”

 

Then, in 1993, he had been hired as a D.C. fire fighter but got a layoff notice along with around 200 other union members. The IAFF intervened and saved everyone’s jobs; that experience, along with his upbringing, sowed the roots of his activism.

 

“Had I lost my job at that point, I was going to try my sea legs out,” Smith recalled. “That experience was powerful – you feel like there’s a debt owed. Someone stuck up for me, and so as I progress, there’s a debt owed that needs to be repaid.”

 

Looking Ahead

 

After working his way up through the ranks, including time as a shop steward, Smith is in his second term as president of Local 36, which represents approximately 1,700 members.

 

“It’s hard work but it’s good, you know?” he said.

 

The local’s biggest issues are “staffing and resources. It’s just a national trend of reduction of government.”

 

Looking at the big picture for not only Local 36 but the entire labor movement, Smith believes that getting members to participate in union activities is key.

 

“I think the earlier we’re able to educate a member, the better,” he concluded. “And we have to embrace some of the electronic changes out there, to bridge the gap between the generations.”

 

Always a forward thinker, his father undoubtedly would have agreed.

 

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