Sept. 5, 2005 – Glen Smith returned to St. Thomas 35 years ago eager to join the community and go to work. And he hasn't missed a beat since.
If he has, you couldn't tell it by looking or listening as the veteran labor leader, who led the St. Thomas-St. John American Federation of Teachers union for 20 years, reflects on his career(s).
Smith's desk at the Department of Labor, where he has been in charge of labor relations for the past five years or so, is laden with layers of papers, topped by a cell phone and a pair of wrap-around sunglasses, which he pushes aside whenever he leans forward to make a point.
He likes to talk with his hands, and he does it with flair. He is engaging. But don't be fooled: He is all business when it comes to issues dear to his heart.
After completing two years at the then College of the Virgin Islands, Smith graduated as a sociology major from Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, in Virginia. "I was eager to enter the world of work when I got home," he says. "I was offered two positions one as a probation officer, and the other teaching. I decided on teaching. I thought I would try it for a couple years, anyhow. I liked the idea of working with kids, I liked that challenge, and I liked the summers off."
The two years rolled into a 20-year career teaching and heading the AFT. And that is to say nothing of his involvement in the territorial Democratic party.
He says the salaries when he started in 1972 were $6,800 yearly for a probation officer and $7,200 for teaching. He said those salaries were then comparable to national salaries.
Smith has been successful in labor negotiations between the government and the teachers over his career, but not so in the recent past, where the AFT has fought a constant battle for retroactive pay and step increases. The AFT is currently at the bargaining table for the 2004-2005 school year salaries.
Also at issue now is an extra half-hour workday which Education Commissioner Noreen Michael tacked onto the 2005 school year without consulting the AFT.
Smith is incensed about that. In fact, it's almost the first thing he addresses. "That is not in the AFT contract," he says. "You cannot do that. The union wasn't consulted."
Smith taught history and geography at Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, then called Wayne Aspinall Junior High School.
His passion for teachers, for that school and for fair labor practices virtually oozes from him, and it doesn't take much to touch it off. "Once an educator, you can't spend the years that I've spent and not be concerned about the children," he says. "We tried, and we had impact."
Reflecting on happier times, Smith says his most satisfying moment came when "we were able to negotiate with then-Gov. Alexander Farrelly and Lt. Gov. Derek Hodge. We had a wonderful collective bargaining agreement with significant salary increases, and a reform program with school-based management.
"It was called the 'most successful contract' ever by the national AFT," he concludes with a big smile. In fact, Smith has a very winning smile, which the interviewer mentions. Looking stern, he cautions, "Flattery will get you nowhere."
"OK," the interviewer says. "It's an awful smile."
Again, he flashes the big grin. "Now, that's more like it."
Smith doesn't seem his 57 years, though there's gray peeking through his moustache and goatee. One wonders if he was always as impassioned about issues. What about high school politics? Smith graduated from Charlotte Amalie High School in 1966. What interested him? "Girls," he readily answers. He says he was in a few school plays and the Methodist Church choir. "I can't sing a lick," he says.
Smith taught at Aspinall for 10 years, during which time he became active in the local AFT. "I was president of the AFT and teaching" he says. "I could leave at noon for union work, but it became overwhelming to do both, and it was hurting my classes. I felt it was time to become a full-time union leader after 10 years doing both."
He learned about dealing with people at an early age. He is the eldest of 12 children, and he has four children himself Michelle, Abdul, Amin and Mansa — all of whom are grown and live in the states.
He says of his AFT tenure, "I'll always be indebted for the appointment to serve 20 years." Another satisfaction comes from his teaching career. "When you meet your former students on the street after they pass through your hands and you learn of their academic successes under your tutelage, it makes your feel good."
Smith ran unsuccessfully for a Senate seat in 2000, after taking a leave of absence from the AFT presidency, a move which he looks back on with the wisdom of hindsight. That was the year of a three-week teacher strike in November.
"I didn't know the teachers would strike" he says. "If I knew the strike was coming, I never would have run. My leave of absence didn't sit well with the union, and rightly so. When things go wrong, you have to assume responsibility. It was on my shoulders. I never dedicated myself 100 percent to the campaign. And my son got sick, and I had to spend time with him."
Smith likely did not receive any votes from his fellow candidates. In a Source survey taken at the time, he advocated lopping off the senators' salaries from $65,000 to $50,000.
He says today, "I wouldn't run again unless there are numbered seats or sub-districting." Both of those options would make for a level playing field, many advocates say. And, Smith points out, "Either one of those options would eliminate Democrat running against Democrat."
He is an active and vocal member of the Democratic Party, where he is St. Thomas-St. John district chair.
Earlier this year, the party had trouble with one prominent Democrat, Senate President Lorraine Berry, who split with the Democratic minority. The committee voted Berry out of her post as head of the Women's Caucus. Smith was staunch in his defense of the vote, which Berry decried loud and long on the airwaves.
"Our by-laws state that a person who associates himself or herself with another caucus automatically forfeits her vote," he says.
"There are some members who think since she is the only female senator, and therefore the best person for the job, she should remain. They say we should let bygones be bygones, and we should start healing in the party," he said at the time. "But, what about those seven minority Democratic senators who stuck with the party? Should we reward somebody who has broken away, when, in fact, she aligned with a group aligned with an opposition to destroy the Democrats?"
There have been rumblings this week of a reorganization in the Senate. Smith reiterates what he had previously said. "She could come back home and join with the other seven Democrats in the minority. I would pledge my full support for her to regain her status as chair, once that is done."
While discussing the last 32 years, Smith is frequently interrupted by phone calls, some of them about Monday's Democratic groups' Labor Day party at Brewers Beach. But he says his heart hasn't been in it as much as it could be. And he's passionate, once again, in explaining why.
He says he has been preoccupied by the recent alleged hate crime on St. John. Raising his hands dramatically, he says, "The police have to make a statement. They can't continue this wall of silence," he says. "They have to re-shuffle the St. John police assignments. And you may quote me."
He says he took a poll at a St. John public meeting last week organized by Delegate Donna Christensen. "Everyone I spoke with had a low opinion of the effectiveness of the St. John police officers."
he had an idea likely born out of his long association with labor practices. "We should form standing organizations to address these deep-seated issues to bring togetherness. Maybe we should get help from other communities and get somebody from the outside."
And the phone rings again. Smith flashes the smile, poses patiently for a picture, and waves us off.
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