HARTFORD, Conn. — Labor leaders from across the region, state elected officials, friends and family gathered June 12 at UAW Region 9A headquarters here for a memorial service for Merrilee Milstein, long-time union, civil rights and women’s rights activist.
A page one story and editorial in the Hartford Courant mourned the loss to the city of two fighters for women’s and workers rights, Milstein, 61, and attorney Ruth Pulda, who both died on June 9 of cancer-related illness.
Joe Alvarez, former AFL-CIO northeast regional director, credited Milstein, who served as his deputy, with making a “transformative contribution by bringing the science and tools of organizing to the labor movement.” He said, “Merrilee loved action and provided leadership to countless labor battles. In every campaign she was looking not just for a win, but what you build along the way.”
Husband and political activist Brian Steinberg along with other family members recounted Merrilee’s special ability to listen and relate to people, her strong sense of humor, her love of sports and her devotion to her daughter Jane.
Milstein, an activist for social and economic justice since high school, became a member of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (HERE) in 1968 while working as a banquet waitress. From 1972 to 1994 she served as vice president of New England Health Care Employees 1199. She was an organizer and political director, and led the state sector of the union. In 1982 she served as chair of the state’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women.
During her first organizing drive at Yale-New Haven Hospital, she met Sid Taylor, who was chair of the Connecticut Communist Party. When Milstein accepted the Amistad Award from the People’s Weekly World in 2006, she said Taylor taught her two big lessons which had a lasting influence on her life: first, that the worker is always right, and second, that unity and struggle can win big gains.
Over the last 35 years, Milstein helped organize thousands of workers, led strikes and was arrested more than 90 times. She played a major role in building labor and community coalitions in Connecticut and New England. She was a founding member and secretary-treasurer of Legislative Electoral Action Project (LEAP), and served on the executive committee of Northeast Action. In 1991, she was coordinator of the March to Rebuild America with the Rev. Jesse Jackson. In 1994, she was field director of the Bill Curry for Governor campaign in Connecticut. When Miles Rapoport, now director of DEMOS, was Connecticut secretary of state, Milstein served as deputy secretary and led the implementation of the National Voter Registration Act and other electoral reform.
Milstein was appointed deputy regional director of the AFL-CIO in 1996. She led efforts to build local and state power with central labor councils and state federations in the Northeast. She was District of Columbia coordinator for the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride in 2003, and coordinated Labor 2004 in New Hampshire, helping New Hampshire to change from a red to a blue state. After leaving the AFL-CIO, while being treated for cancer, Milstein received a master’s degree from American University in organizational development, and certification in Leadership Coaching from Georgetown.
“Merrilee inspired so many people to make our world fairer, more just and more humane,” said Alvarez. At a reception following the memorial, John Olsen, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, was the first of many who pledged to carry on the struggles that Milstein fought with such dedication.