Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., Nov. 2, 3 or 4
An Illinois native, Beil helped resist Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 collective bargaining measure known as Act 10, which virtually eliminated public-sector union rights, and Illinois workers who went on union bus trips to join rallies there undoubtedly saw Beil wielding a bullhorn, speaking from a lectern, or talking one-on-one with supporters.
“When we got the news that he’d died, I was surprised,” said AFSCME’s Bob Allen, who’d worked alongside Beil for 13 years. “He’d fought through other health struggles it seemed like through sheer will, but not this time.
“He really was a larger-than-life figure,” continued Allen, a public-affairs associate for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 32 in Wisconsin. “He understood his presence sometimes made a difference but he didn’t make it about himself. It was always about labor. He was a blessing. If a reporter needed something, I could put him in front of a camera and it was always an interesting interview. He could be … colorful.”
Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, a moderate Republican, recalled Beil fondly, saying, “He loved his unions, he loved his members, he loved politics and he loved a good spread.”
Thompson said part of bargaining with Beil was getting past “the bluster” to Beil’s “fair and honest” style of negotiating.
“First off, you have to realize you have to go through the antics,” Thompson said. “He was so big, he filled the room – just with his physical size but he also had a giant personality. He would jump up and down – not physically, but mentally – making you believe he was going to come across the table at you. But once you got past the antics ... he was fun to negotiate with.”
Gravel-voiced and often gruff, Beil graduated from seminary and earned a Master’s degree from Marquette University, after which he worked for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections as a probation and parole agent. He got involved in the union, becoming a member of its bargaining team and president of the local. In 1978 he was elected president of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, a position he held until being named Director of the AFSCME Council 24 in 1985.
As the long-time face and voice for Wisconsin public employees, Beil was respected by Republicans and Democrats alike, but he stood up to anyone who he felt betrayed labor. After Democratic state Sen. Russ Decker in 2010 voted against a contract settlement with state workers – giving an opening to Walker’s assault on unions soon after – Beil publicly blasted the Democrat.
But Walker-type Republicans were Beils’ usual targets. He said Walker was “hell-bent on creating a climate of fear, intimidation and hostility.
“These guys are off the wall,” he continued. “They’re drunk with some kind of power or misconception of reality. I think the commitment from Republicans to kill unions is from top to bottom.”
Beil retired this June upon the merger of different AFSCME Councils, all hard hit by the anti-union state law.
“If Act 10 hadn’t come, Marty might’ve retired sooner and got to enjoy more of life,” Allen said. “But even after he retired he was still active. He’d walk on a picket line or go down to be with the Solidarity Singers for their vigils at the Capitol.”
The consequences of Act 10 stuck with Beil – as it has with most working people in Wisconsin – Allen added.
“Everybody was sad and mad,” Allen said. “After 40 years of working for the union, it hurt Marty to see all that torn apart.”
In June, Beil said, “In spite of Act 10, Scott Walker, Robin Vos, Scott Fitzgerald, the ‘Tea Party’ and every other nut job that is out there, I have a strong message,” referring to the governor and Republican lawmakers. “Workers will eventually prevail. Working families will once again set the agenda.
“It is unconscionable, and it is something I will hold against Scott Walker until the day I die,” he said.
Reflecting on Beil’s death and life and legacy, it’s hard not to recall the words of Mother Jones, who said, “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”
[PICTURED: Photo from AFSCME.]