- Associated Press - Friday, October 2, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Marty Beil, the burly and sometimes brusque leader of the Wisconsin state employee labor union for 30 years, has died. He was 68.

Beil died in his sleep Thursday at home in Mazomanie, his sister Mickey Beil said. He had not been sick and the cause of death was not immediately known, she said Friday.

To many, Beil was the face of the state employees union, an outspoken advocate for workers’ rights for more than 40 years. He was at the center of the losing fight in 2011 against Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal, known as Act 10, which effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers represented by Beil’s union.

Beil helped to organize the protests that grew as large as 100,000 people, and was a mainstay in the Capitol, either testifying in public hearings our rallying his supporters with a bullhorn.

The battle over workers’ rights “took a huge toll on Marty,” said John Matthews, executive director of the union covering Madison school teachers, who worked with Beil for more than 30 years.

Beil was respected by both Republicans and Democrats until Walker and Republicans who have controlled the Legislature since 2011, Matthews said.

One of the targets of Beil’s anger, Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, said the fight over Act 10 became personal and forever tarnished their working relationship.

“I got along great with Marty for 15 years but obviously Act 10 changed that,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m sorry to see he passed away.”

Walker did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Beil’s dislike for Walker and Republicans who voted for the Act 10 union restrictions was palpable.

“These guys are off the wall,” Beil said in 2011. “They’re drunk with some kind of power or misconception of reality.”

He said Walker was “hell bent on creating a climate of fear, intimidation and hostility.”

And he didn’t reserve his distaste for Republicans. When Democratic state Sen. Russ Decker wouldn’t allow a vote on new union contracts in 2010, Beil called him a “whore.” That decision to not implement the contracts made it easier for Walker to take away the unions’ bargaining power months later.

“Brother Beil spoke truth to power,” said Lee Saunders, the national president of AFSCME. “And he backed his words up with actions. He never asked or expected anybody to make sacrifices that he wasn’t willing to make himself.”

Said Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin: “Marty was never afraid to stand up for workers when the deck was stacked against them.”

Beil started working as a probation and parole officer for the state in 1969. He became active with the union and was chosen as president of his local chapter in 1973. He was elected president of the Wisconsin State Employees union in 1978 and held the position until 1985, when he was selected as the union’s executive director.

Beil retired in June, saying he felt it was time to step aside for a younger generation of leaders after his union merged with two others earlier in the year.

Beil was a divisive figure, reviled by his political opponents and revered by those he represented and their allies.

When he retired, Wisconsin Republican Party spokesman Chris Martin said Beil “tried to divide our state with pugnacious rhetoric and baseless attacks.”

Beil, in his typically brunt manner, said in an Associated Press interview in June that he expected Republicans to continue trying to eliminate unions.

“I think the commitment from Republicans to kill unions is from top to bottom,” Beil said. “They’re going to spread their vile stuff. … My retirement isn’t going to stop them.”

But Beil said he believed workers ultimately would prevail.

“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,” Beil said then, referring to the governor and Republican legislative leaders. “Workers will eventually prevail. Working families will once again set the agenda.”

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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