Joyce Miller: First Lady of Labor

Joyce Miller being honored (1983)

New Orleans   Meeting Joyce Miller was one of those happy coincidences.  Her son, Josh, was working as a researcher for ACORN in Arkansas in the 1970’s, which gave her an excuse to visit the state and the rest of us an opportunity to meet her.  The Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) was something that mattered at the time, because they were the one established group of tough, savvy union women within the ranks of institutional labor that the staid, conservative building trades wing led by George Meany, didn’t embrace, but couldn’t shake off.  As vice-president of the once powerful and progressive union, the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union (ACTWU), Joyce had been at the founding meetings of CLUW and an early officer of the organization, becoming in 1977, CLUW’s second national president.

Unions were decidedly “old school” at the time, even more so than now.  The old lions were still roaming the range, even as the membership and movement was sliding down a mountain, having crested without realizing it, and still grasping at this rock or that on the way down, as they tried to get a grip and denied the obvious at the same time.  Joyce was “old school,” too, which is partly what made her impossible to ignore for the old hands, frustrating for the young feminists, and effective in the backrooms in what she referred to as the “sea of men.”  She was from Chicago, had started working on auto assembly lines while in school there, and became an activist.  She first rose to prominence in the unions that became ACTWU as education director of the Joint Board in the Midwest.  Labor education in the old school of labor used to be part of the essential package that prepared leaders, trained stewards and bargaining committees, and, essentially provided the history and ideology that built the struggle “culture” of the labor movement.  This was the “soft side” of a hard movement.   And, not just the soft side either, because part of what went with the portfolio was strike support.  Joyce’s department had to be able to mobilize the social services, get the food stamps and unemployment that allowed the troops to hang on, provide the family support, and a hundred other things that could allow workers to make it “one day longer” and give them a chance to win.  A tall, sturdy woman with a hoarse, gruff voice, Joyce didn’t come off like a social worker.  She wasn’t a back down woman.  It wouldn’t have been hard imagining her puffing a cigar with the old guys if that had made a difference.

Joyce Miller in 1988 second from left with Evy Dubrow (far right), a CLUW founder.

Both of these departments have largely disappeared, but in the 1970’s and 1980’s there leaders at the cutting edge like Joyce could understand that a hybrid community union of sorts like ACORN, starting to expand from Arkansas to other states, could be a game changer as part of the larger progressive forces with their wider view of labor.  I can never forget in the late 70’s while trying to raise money one spring in New York, Joyce inviting me to have lunch in Union Square with some of her colleagues, including the organizing director of the union.  As Joyce moderated the discussion, they explained what they did.  I explained what we did.  The organizing director wanted to know all the specifics.  How many organizers?  What hours did they work?  What were they paid?  Finally at the end of the lunch, he turned to me and said that he would give anything if we could just do an even trade, his organizing staff for mine for a couple of years.  He honestly didn’t think the trade was a good deal for ACORN, but he thought he might save his union and the labor movement if we could make a deal.  Everyone laughed.  Joyce louder than others, feeling she had just stirred the pot.  He wasn’t serious unfortunately, but I was, and it made a different.

In 1980, I was 32 and Joyce Miller was 52.  That year she was named the first woman member of the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council.  Women by that time made up more than 7 million of the 13.5 million members of the federation, so it was fair to say that it was about damned time.  Now there are women running some of the largest unions within institutional labor from the AFT to the SEIU.   More than 30 years later women still don’t have a secure role in the union culture despite their increasing majority.  I can remember the fights in the late 1980’s to get women on the executive board of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO.  Women are still disproportionately represented at every level of the labor movement, and that issue alone has to be on the list when noting labor’s decline.

I got an email late last night from Josh Miller, now a long tenured professor at Lafayette College on the Pennsylvania/New Jersey border.  She was in her mid-80’s.  I had written about her in Social Policy in recent years which had given me a good excuse to have a couple of great phone conversations with her, sharp as a tack, and to the point as always.

He said Joyce had died the night before.  He knew I would want to know because “she was one of your greatest fans.”   And, I was one of hers!

I will be looking for Steven Greenhouse’s obituary for Joyce in the Times, because attention and respect must be paid.  Lessons in the special Joyce Miller school of labor education are still being taught and, more importantly, still need to be learned for women and men to lead the way in building the unions of the future.

Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) supports organizing drive at the A&S department store in Brooklyn.

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