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Helen Miller, union activist who fought for living wage, dies at 82

Helen Miller headshot

Helen Miller was president of SEIU Local 880 from 1999 to 2007. She helped the union grow from seven members in 1983 to over 70,000 members by 2007, when she retired. Miller was one of the first African-American women to serve as president in a local of that size in the country.

In 1987 Helen Miller headed a group of hundreds of home health care workers as they marched into the state capital toting mops and brooms to campaign for a hike in their $1-an-hour wage.

Mrs. Miller used to say she grew up shy, but when it came time to testify before lawmakers that day, she found her voice.

“When I got in front of all those important people with their nice suits and dresses, looking down on us, I told them: ‘Don’t listen to me with your head, listen to me with your heart,'” she recalled.

Her lobbying back then helped increase the minimum hourly wage for some home health care workers to $3.50, up from $1, according to Keith Kelleher, former president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois. (SEIU Healthcare has an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.)

Mrs. Miller, 82, died March 5 of complications from stomach cancer in her hometown of Louisville, Mississippi, where she moved when she retired.

She had been born there, on her family’s farm in 1936. That’s where she grew up, too, picking cotton and doing other heavy physical labor. Once she graduated high school, young Helen headed north to Chicago to seek work.

“Growing up as children on the farm, we had to share a bed in our small house” said her sister, Johnnie Wells, who survives. “But once we were older and I visited her in Chicago, we chose to share a bed so we could sit and talk the night away.”

After getting married to Colin Miller and settling on the South Side, she worked in an industrial laundry. In the late 1970s, she became an in-home care provider for the city of Chicago and state of Illinois, doing basic tasks for senior citizens and people with disabilities, including feeding, bathing and dressing them.

Helen Miller at March 2005 union rally

Helen Miller at a 2005 union rally in Springfield. Raised in the Jim Crow South, Miller came to Chicago in the 1950s looking for a job. She worked in industrial laundry and later as a home health care worker. | Provided

In 1984, Mrs. Miller joined SEIU Local 880. Often, she’d work with housebound patients all day, then ride the bus or train to union meetings in the evening to volunteer and organize with other workers.

From 1999 to 2007, she served as president of Local 880, Kelleher said. In 2003, she led a bargaining committee that helped win an increase in their hourly wage, reaching $9.35 per hour in 2007.

“Before organizing with the union, I was like a little mouse in the corner saying ‘peep, peep’ but now I’m a roaring lion,” Mrs. Miller once said.

“She didn’t like seeing people being taken advantage of,” said her nephew Tony Berry. “She dedicated every day to fighting for a living wage.”

Helen Miller stands with Barack Obama in 1996.

Helen Miller stands with a young Barack Obama in 1996 at the state capitol in Springfield, shortly after he was elected state senator. Mrs. Miller canvassed for Obama for several of his state elections. | Provided

Mrs. Miller worked on Barack Obama’s state senate and congressional campaigns, as well as his 2004 run for U.S. Senate. When she retired in 2007, then-Senator Obama sent Mrs. Miller a letter that said, “Your dedication has changed the lives of thousands of citizens, helped them receive higher pay, health care and benefits, and given them a share of the American dream.”

She was preceded in death by her husband. She is survived by two brothers, Hayward Ashford and Jerome Hoskin; four sisters, Brenda Thomas, Paulette Cooks, and Cookie Hoskin and Johnnie Wells; and several nieces and nephews.

Services were last week in Louisville, Mississippi.