Calm In The Middle Of The Storm

October 31, 2018

Rochester secretary has been a stalwart of justice and professionalism for 60 years.

ALBERTA MILLER Secretary, Rochester Medical Center’s Strong Memorial Hospital

AlbertaMiller_fa.jpgToday, there are many workers in 1199SEIU shops who can talk about workplace conditions before the nation’s most powerful healthcare union organized their institution. But there may be only one active member who can talk about circumstances in the workplace before 1199 was a hospital workers’ union.

Alberta Miller, a medical secretary in the pulmonary unit of Rochester (NY) Medical Center’s Strong Memorial Hospital, was honored in June by 1199 Rochester for her 60 years of steadfast service.

When Miller entered the workplace in 1958, basic office equipment included manual typewriters and rotary phones. The Xerox machine would not be introduced for another year, computers and the internet were the stuff of science fiction and 1199, then a small drugstore workers’ union, had not yet organized its first hospital.

Miller can attest to the workplace culture of sexism, racism and general mistreatment of office workers depicted in “Hidden Figures” and “Mad Men.”

“Many times over the years, I’ve had to bite my tongue and swallow hard,” she says. “My parents taught me the importance of respect and dignity,” she emphasizes. “I’m all about giving it as well as receiving it.”

Miller spent her first five years at Strong as an LPN in OB/GYN department before getting the coveted position of secretary.

“Alberta was one of the first women of color to attain a patient unit secretary position,” says 1199 Rochester VP Bruce Popper. “For multiple generations of young patient unit secretaries, she has been their role model and trainer.”

“I’m all about the respect and dignity we all deserve.”

Miller never considered herself a leader and though she shunned the spotlight, her example shone bright. She eagerly dedicated herself to activities that improved not only her status but also that of her coworkers.

That was so in 1973 when the Congress of Racial Equality, a major civil rights organization at the time, contacted 1199 to suggest that the union investigate discriminatory employment practices and poor working conditions at Strong.

1199 answered the call and assigned a young staffer, Larry Fox, to help organize the workers. Out of the historic organizing drive emerged a generation of leaders including Miller and Mattie Best, who led both the organizing and contract campaigns.

Miller served as one of Best’s key lieutenants. Best, who passed away in 2013, is remembered as the member most responsible for planting the Union flag at Strong, and through that, improving the conditions for other hospital workers in the region.

“I didn’t hesitate to join the campaign because I knew the importance of having a union,” Miller says. “I was confident that it would improve our conditions. My late husband worked at Wegman’s Warehouse and was a member of the Teamsters Union. He told me that every worker should belong to a union. I attended meetings and I learned a lot from Mattie. She was more than a coworker, she was also my friend.

“I’ve always believed in working hard and doing my very best,” she says. “I also tell young workers that it’s easier to win your fight when you’re right and you’ve gained the respect of others—for example, having a good work record. I believe in listening before speaking, and when you speak, it should be done respectfully.”

1199 Magazine | September - October 2018