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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The Call to Citizen Action

29-lafayetteLafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania It was fun to talk to the crowd of more than 100 students crammed into the auditorium on a clear, brisk fall night.  It was a back-to-the-50’s group of largely fresh faced, white teenagers and just twenties folks, largely drawn from the Middle Atlantic student catchment area, who in the main weren’t liberal and weren’t conservative but were still lost in the maze and confusion of figuring out these times and their future.  They are not alone and they are not a  movement yet, but there’s a mass of unhappiness laying in wait of anger and issues.

My book on Citizen Wealth had been the excuse for Professor Josh Miller in the government department to invite me speak during the winter, when I was unable to travel due to a massive snowstorm in the East disappointing me and the local Tea Party folks who had been spreading the word to protest my appearance.  Thirty years before Josh had worked for ACORN in Texas and Arkansas, so this was also an opportunity to reconnect.  Larry Ginsburg, another old comrade from ACORN and the labor unions drove up.  Josh’s sister, Rebecca, also a veteran union warrior now specializing in back office miracle work much needed by many, was also in the house.  Besides the pleasure of old stories about friends and work, Josh had labeled my talk, “The Call to Citizen Action,” which gave me an excuse to talk about the special challenges of these dark times in America in the shadow of the rising right, shrinking left, weakening of unions, and death of ACORN.

I don’t have to worry about a lot of requests to speak at commencements, because my message in the malingering depths of this Great Recession, where job prospects are so meager for coming graduates, where the chance of these kids becoming homeowners is minor, where their school debts will be weights tied to their leg dragging them even further underwater, was essentially, “hey, you are so screwed, you are lost generation, you’re Japanese and stuck for the next 10 or 20 years, you might as well answer the call to citizen action,because there’s absolutely no one else on the phone reaching out for you.”  And, unless you to sober up, get real, and build you’re own “party,” and take action as citizens, you’re future is totally bleak and depressing.   My pitch was that they needed to push the college, their professors, and each other to help them learn how to create a job and get comfortable raising money so that they could create opportunities for their own future in citizen action to express their anger and find their passion.  I’m not saying there was standing in the aisles applause, but I will say, I had their attention.

The questions and answers were especially interesting around the issues of voter registration, voter education, and even election protection.  The students were struggling to get their arms around how it was really possible in an ostensible democracy to have voting impediments and perhaps even more confounding to some was the ability to cross over the empathy bridge to other life experiences and imagine why huge numbers of people in other circumstances did not just “naturally” feel an inherent obligation to vote.  One or two of the students wanted the call to action to be embedded like a computer chip in a dog collar or some such so that people just naturally could hear the high pitched dog whistle only available to them to run vote without any fuss or bother or work by their fellow citizens to move people to participate.  My response to the queries about whether registration, protection, or education was the chicken or the egg was to advise the students to fry all of it up in a large pan and eat away.  It wasn’t worth having the argument, the call to citizen action needed to be answered in all of these directors, so whatever moved someone was worth moving forward on to the future.

Sometimes you have to throw a lot of seed in the fields to hope something grows, and this visit at Lafayette felt a little bit like that, but it wasn’t boring for either the students or me, so I enjoyed the listening and maybe someone heard something special in what I was trying to say about their future, so it was all good.  Citizen Wealth flew off the shelves enough to make the bookstore happy.  Joey Carey and Loren got some more good footage for their documentary, “ACORN Under Attack:  The Past, Present, and Future,” and we had a good visit, so I guess it was a day well spent all in all.

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