Phil Neuenfeldt, the former president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO who died Sunday at the age of 67, was remembered Monday as a giant of a man — literally and figuratively — who championed the rights of state workers and unified them against lawmakers who severely weakened public-sector unions in 2011.
“He was an amazing, spiritual soul for all us,” said Kim Kohlhaas, the president of the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin.
He was imposing physically because he was a big man but Neuenfeldt led with his heart instead of his fists, according to Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME Chapter 32.
He recalled how thousands of workers from across the state traveled to Madison in 2011 to protest following Neueunfeldt’s impassioned, and often humorous, pleas to push back against what became known as Act 10, Republican legislation that stripped much of the power from public-sector unions.
The legislation sparked massive protests from public- and private-sector unions and their allies.
“He was at every rally, he was at every march. We had tens of thousands of people there and he was right there in the middle of all of it,” Badger said.
Badger also recalled how Neuenfeldt led the same way, no matter the situation. “He cared about workers, regardless of the work they did or where they came from,” Badger said. “That’s what stays with me.”
The Wisconsin AFL-CIO announced Neuenfeldt’s death Monday but did not list a cause of death. Badger said Neuenfeldt retired in September.
Some believe Neuenfeldt’s past as a machinist at General Electric helped him connect with workers.
“They identified with him because he identified with them,” said Doug Keillor, president of Madison Teachers Inc. “He was large, gregarious, big-hearted and fun-loving, and he fought as hard for the machinists as he did for the teachers. He didn’t rank people. How could you not love the guy?”
After climbing the ladder of leadership positions at his local union with GE, Neuenfeldt went to work for the Wisconsin AFL-CIO in 1986. He continued to sharpen his leadership skills as legislative director and secretary-treasurer before becoming president.
“He was a person we could turn to when we were struggling as leaders,” said Kohlhaas. “He made us better leaders.”
Kohlhaas, who lives in Superior, admitted she was intimidated initially at organized labor functions when she became president of AFT-Wisconsin two years after Act 10. She said Neuenfeldt changed that by seeking her out and making her feel comfortable with his ever-present smile and some positive words.
Neuenfeldt backed up his talk with action, too, according to Kohlhaas.
“What I really valued about Phil is he made sure we had the strength and resources to continue the fight,” she said. “He made sure we still had a voice so we had the resources to do our jobs and be good at our jobs.”
Proper training for workers was most important to Neuenfeldt, and he implored businesses to make sure they got it, Badger said.
“Phil was on the side of workers but he wasn’t against business. He wanted business to succeed. He believed if you had a well-trained workforce they would work better, the business they worked for would do better, and the city where the business was located would do better,” he said.
“That’s what he championed,” he said. “It wasn’t about us versus them.”
Stephanie Bloomingdale, who succeeded Neuenfeldt as president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, called Neuenfeldt one of the great leaders of organized labor. “Phil Neuenfeldt embodied the vision and values of organized labor, and he will be tremendously missed,” she said in a statement. “It was a tremendous honor for me to serve with (him) and to call him a friend.”
One Wisconsin Now, a progressive political action group, said in a statement that it was heartbroken by the news of Neuenfeldt’s death. “Wisconsin workers, both inside and outside of organized labor, owe an eternal debt of gratitude for Phil’s tireless work on their behalf. He was kind, warm and never without a broad smile for his friends,” the statement said.
Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairwoman Martha Laning said Wisconsin’s working people couldn’t have had a better advocate.
“He was right there beside us leading the charge through some of the toughest battles our state has seen,” she said in a statement. “I will remember Phil as someone who stayed committed to his values no matter the obstacles in his path. We are proud to carry Paul’s torch forward and keep up the fight he dedicated his life to.”
The timing of Neuenfeldt’s death just before Tuesday’s elections has been a source of motivation for Kohlhaas.
“I’ve been honored to knock on doors today, and I will be again tomorrow, in his name,” she said.
Editor's note: This story has been changed to better paraphrase Kim Kohlhaas' explanation of how Neuenfeldt helped her transition into a leadership role at AFT-Wisconsin.