By: nlccommunity in Alumni Spotlight | July 10, 2012 |
When Edward Smith attended National Labor College (NLC) back in 1974, labor was in its heyday. A labor shortage meant high wages and 'cafeteria' benefits.
Smith was a sponge soaking up all the information he could from his professors and his fellow students, who came from all across the country to fight for workers.
“We were all dedicated; all on a mission,” says Smith. “We were missionaries for the labor movement.”
Although it's been almost 40 years since he enrolled in NLC, that mission of educating the next generation of leaders has not changed according to Smith, who now serves as an executive committee board member for the college in addition to his role as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Ullico Inc., the Union Labor Life Insurance Company.
In fact, Smith believes NLC's mission is more important now that the climate has put workers on the defensive.
According to Smith, being elected to union office is like being a parent—you're thrown in with no map and no guidebook. You learned your craft, whether you were a steelworker, laborer or electrical worker, but you don't know how to be a union leader.
That's where NLC comes in.
“At the Labor College, you get the training and tools to run the union,” says Smith. The strength of the program for Smith is that you learn from the perspective of different unions and different geographic locations—not just your segment of the labor movement.
With the sale of the Silver Spring campus, Smith says that NLC will once again be able to go where the students are, returning to its initial credo of being a “college without walls.”
“Although the sale of the campus was a difficult decision, the need for the mission of the college is more than ever,” says Smith.
"Union leaders are not in Washington; union leaders are all around the country."
For a man who wore t-shirts and work boots every day, the opportunity to attend National Labor College was life changing.
The first time Smith travelled to NLC, he used all of his take home pay from his job as a laborer on a construction site to buy a $175 airline ticket, two sport coats and two slacks. Back then, students dressed up for class so Smith ensured his new clothes coordinated so he could make four outfits out of them.
NLC was a correspondence college back when Smith attended. Classes were held over the phone and coursework was submitted through the mail. He met with his class in February and August in Washington D.C., for one week.
But wherever they met, one thing was certain—he and his classmates built solidarity both in the classroom and at the bar.
“I always say that I got half my education in the classroom and half networking,” says Smith. He recalls that they drank union-made beer and Almaden wine made from grapes picked by members of the United Farm Workers and distilled by the distillery workers.
New NLC students enrolling in the School of Labor Studies have the opportunity to experience the same solidarity during their two weekend-long residencies.
The bridges built during those residencies still stand strong, says Smith, who, while at NLC, met one of his best friends, Kevin Kistler, the Director of Organization and Field Services at the Office and Professional Employees (OPEIU).
With four uncles and a father in the union, Smith was the first one in the family to attend college. Working full-time, Smith completed his bachelor's degree in four years, finishing in 1978.
“I worked 16 hours days and loved every minute of it,” says Smith of his time as a business manager and secretary treasurer of his local.
He was also the first member of the Laborers' International Union (LIUNA) to graduate from NLC with a bachelor's degree, Smith went on to graduate from the Harvard University Trade Union Program. He worked his way up the union ranks at LIUNA, becoming the Vice President and Regional Manager and Assistant to the General President before he moved over to Ullico, the only labor-owned insurance and investment company.
In a way, it's all thanks to his mother, who came home from a women's auxiliary meeting with the college catalogue.
“At NLC I could work full time and get a degree in the field I wanted to spend my life in,” says Smith.
"If not for the NLC, I would never have had developed the skill set that allowed me to advance my career on the business side of the labor movement."