Union Maid

Over the past several decades, at any number of public events I’ve attended, I never had trouble knowing when Joyce Miller was in the house. “Harold!” she would boom, her voice a friendly foghorn across a crowded room.

Over the decades, she’d needed that voice to make herself—and the cause of women workers—heard. A founder and, later, the president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Joyce was a longtime official of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, a heavily female union headed by invariably male leaders who eventually made room for very talented secondary-level women leaders such as Joyce. In 1980, even the AFL-CIO executive council made room for Joyce, when she was elected to become its first female member.

During the decades when middle-class feminism was on the rise, Joyce continually reminded everyone within earshot that working-class women faced doubly difficult challenges—entering, or stuck, in a workforce where “the feminization of poverty” (a term she employed as far back as the early '80s) was almost normative. As she wrote in a 1985 letter to The New York Times, “When secretaries were men, clerical work was well paid, upwardly mobile and high status. 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.” Which is why Joyce worked to mitigate the market with statutes and union contracts that did away with such disparities. She died, of a stroke, here in Washington on June 30. Her voice reverberates even yet.

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