Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how the good old union
Has come in here to dwell
Which side are you on boys?
Which side are you on?
Marty Beil knew which side he was on.
He was a union man. Indeed, as Congressman Mark Pocan noted after Beil’s death last week at age 68, “Marty embodied the longstanding Wisconsin tradition of fighting for workers’ rights and protections.”
Beil’s commitment to trade unionism was old-school and unequivocal. He was ready to bargain; but if the deal was no good, he took the fight to the streets. He marched. He rallied. He occupied the corridors of power, and interrupted the best-laid plans of the worst-intended politicians. He made few apologies.
Yet, Beil was never just a labor leader. His commitment to the cause or working families was shaped by the unique traditions of his union: the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.
AFSCME traces its roots to Madison, the Wisconsin capital city where state employees began to organize more than 80 years ago—in the depths of the Great Depression. AFSCME started with an idea. The idea was that state, county, and municipal employees needed fair compensation and fair treatment in the workplace not only to protect their own self-interest but also to protect the interest of a society that is at its strongest and most productive when public employees are respected and public services and well and ably delivered. A first priority of the founders of what would become the Wisconsin State Employees Union was the defense of the state’s civil-service system as an alternative to the corrupt and politicized “spoils” systems that had once been used to fill public posts.
Beil, who died unexpectedly just a few months after his retirement, understood and embraced the AFSCME ideal of public-sector unionism.
He was right, and wise, to do so.
The work Beil poured into building AFSCME over the course of almost half a century—as a rank-and-file union member, as a local union president, as a bargaining-team member, as president of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, and from 1985 to 2015 as executive director of AFSCME Council 24—made Wisconsin stronger and better. It also advanced the broader cause of public-sector trade unionism at a time when state, county, and municipal workers were struggling, along with teachers, to gain the pay, benefits and respect their work merited. And, when right-wing billionaires and politicians began to advance austerity policies that attacked public workers, public services, and public education, Beil stood on the front line of the fightback.