Joyce D. Miller dies; influential women’s union organizer was 84

Joyce D. Miller, a fierce proponent of the American labor movement who helped found a national organization of unionized female workers before becoming the first woman elected to the AFL-CIO executive council, died June 30 at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington. She was a District resident.

She was 84 and had suffered a stroke earlier in the week she died, said her son Joshua Miller.

Ms. Miller spent much of the past half-century organizing women in the workplace and within unions that, in her view, had long neglected the particular needs of female members, such as wage parity, parental leave and child-care services.

She was a committed feminist but, she insisted, a trade unionist first. “There is no greater road to equality,” she said, “than to be covered by a union contract.”

Ms. Miller came to prominence in the 1960s and early ’70s as she rose through the male-dominated ranks of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in Chicago and New York. A divorced mother of three, she was driven partly by personal experience to help found the Coalition of Labor Union Women in 1974.


Joyce D. Miller in her office in New York in 1977. (Neal Boenzi/THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Ms. Miller became the coalition’s president in 1977. Three years later, she won her seat on the executive council of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the largest federation of unions in the United States.

In 1993, Ms. Miller moved to Washington to head the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission under Robert Reich, President Bill Clinton’s labor secretary. Under her leadership, the commission produced a report in 1995 that drew national attention to professional barriers that persisted for women and minorities decades after the women’s liberation and civil rights movements.

In an interview, Reich noted that Ms. Miller’s name is not as well known as that of Betty Friedan, the author of the feminist manifesto “The Feminine Mystique” (1963), or Frances Perkins, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor secretary and the first woman to serve as a Cabinet secretary.

“But Joyce Miller’s accomplishments were important both to the women’s movement and to the cause of justice in the workplace,” Reich said. “Her voice was a critical part of the debate over women’s rights.”

Ms. Miller focused her efforts over the years on practical services for female workers. The program she helped establish for members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in Chicago in the 1960s was described in a government labor report as “the Rolls Royce of day care.”

Ms. Miller also sought to combat entrenched workplace inequalities, including salary discrepancies between men and women.

“When secretaries were men, clerical work was well paid, upwardly mobile and high status,” she wrote in a 1985 letter to the New York Times. “When women became secretaries, they hit a low-paid dead end. The same thing happened when women replaced men as sewing-machine operators, bank tellers and telephone operators. ‘The market’ seems to notice when the workers in a job undergo a sex change.”

That letter was representative of Ms. Miller’s style — insistent, but pithy rather than strident. She argued that working within the system was more effective than confrontation aimed at demolishing the system. “Unless we’re part of the mainstream of labor,” she told the Associated Press in 1980, “we’ll just be out on the street shouting.”

Ms. Miller retired in 1997 after serving as a special adviser to Reich and adjudicating wage disputes at the Labor Department.

Hannah Joyce Dannen was born in Chicago on June 19, 1928. As a young girl, she began going by her middle name, her son said.

Ms. Miller’s father ran a dry goods store, and her mother taught at a school for the deaf, mute and blind.

Ms. Miller went to the University of Chicago, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1949 and a master’s degree in education in 1951. As a student, she got an assembly-line job at a gum-ball factory and joined the bakery and confectionery workers union. She briefly worked for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers before marrying fellow labor organizer Jay A. Miller in 1952.

While raising her children, Ms. Miller worked part-time as a teacher and union volunteer. Shortly before divorcing in 1964, she returned to Amalgamated Clothing Workers. She became a vice president of the union and its director of social services by the mid-1970s.

As social services director, Ms. Miller reportedly clocked 100,000 miles a year traveling around the country to set up support programs for union workers and particularly for working mothers.

Survivors include three children, Joshua Miller of Easton, Pa., Adam Miller of Marina del Rey, Calif., and Rebecca Miller of San Francisco; a brother; and two grandchildren.

“Women feel tremendous pressure and anxiety when they leave their children to work,” Ms. Miller once told an interviewer. “I’ve been there.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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