Jim Neeley, union leader and former state labor commissioner, dies aged 76

James G. “Jim” Neeley, a longtime Tennessee union leader who served as commissioner of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development under former Gov. Phil Bredesen, has died at the age of 76.

Before his appointment as commissioner by Bredesen, Neeley was president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council. The organization’s current president, Billy Dycus, notes he also served as labor commissioner under former Gov. Ray Blanton, in this statement issued Thursday following Neeley’s death late Wednesday evening.

“The entire Tennessee labor movement is deeply saddened by the passing of James Neeley. For decades, he was a powerful voice for working people in our state. As president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council for over 20 years, Neeley left a lasting legacy that will never be forgotten. It is impossible to put into words how truly grateful we are for all of his contributions to our brothers and sisters during the time that he spent leading the Council.

Neeley also served as the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development under both Governor Ray Blanton and Governor Phil Bredesen, a role that ensured labor always had a strong presence in state government during his service. Along with all members of our labor family, we send our most heartfelt sympathies to his wife, Rachel, and his family. His passing leaves a void that will never truly be filled.”

The funeral will be 3 p.m. Sunday at Huntingdon First United Methodist Church. Visitation will be Saturday 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Dilday-Carter Funeral Home in Huntingdon and again from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday. The full obituary is posted HERE.

Neeley was honored in April at a gathering attended by about 200 people and hosted by the Carroll County Democratic Party, though attended by Republicans as well, reported the McKenzie Banner at the time. An excerpt:

James (Jim) Neely grew up in and around Huntingdon. He first attended a two-room school, graduated Huntingdon High School, worked as a bundle boy for Publix Shirt Company, headed a statewide labor union, and served in state government under two Democratic administrations. He has advised and been in the presence of state and national leaders. He served on the Huntingdon School Board and was chairman for many years. He coached youth league baseball teams and has been named Huntingdon’s Outstanding Citizen (2010), Carroll County Chamber Person of the Year (2007), Professional of the Year by the Tennessee Industrial Development Council (2007; Lifetime Achievement Award winner from the Tennessee Labor Management Foundation (2010), who also established a James G. Neely Foundation scholarship in his honor.

Former State Representative Mark Maddox was the master of ceremonies for the evening. The list of persons offering kind remarks at the podium included: Walter Butler, president of Bethel University; Don Farmer, executive committeeman of the Tennessee Democratic Party; Barbara Kelly, former aide to Vice President Al Gore; Dale Kelley, mayor of Huntingdon; Kenny McBride, mayor of Carroll County; Gus Radford, district attorney (retired); John Everett Williams, judge, Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals; Natalie Porter, register, Carroll County; Donald Parish, circuit court judge; and former Congressman Frank Clement.

There’s a paragraph of so on comments from each of those listed.

Note: As labor commissioner and as an informal political adviser, Neeley played an active role in the Bredesen administration, perhaps most notably by pushing the governor’s worker’s compensation reform plans over active opposition of many union leaders and by overseeing an increase in the state’s tax on employers to pay for unemployment insurance benefits after the benefit trust fund dropped to low levels.

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Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.
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