In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.
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For those of us who can relate to being exploited, tokenized, harassed and/or gaslit at work, wouldn’t it be fantastic to have a gathering place to process our tribulations, actualize a sense of solidarity, plot out our collective power among others also willing to take action, and satiate our thirst? This place exists, comrades: The Lounge, neatly tucked inside the Madison Labor Temple on South Park Street.
Labor temples were established as spaces for union leaders to gather, administer, organize and inform their membership, safely away from the employer space, and within the ethos of solidarity. Many of these monuments to the labor movement remain active around the country today. Within the Madison Labor Temple building, several local unions have offices, uniformly labeled upon privacy-glass door panels in handsome hardware-store adhesive lettering—United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1473, Sheet Metal Workers International Association Local 565, United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 314, and more. The Labor Temple also rents room space at a reasonable price to the general public. But beware when you book: the public booking calendar on the website seems to list names and personal phone numbers with reservations, and in at least once instance, details like this: Bernie Sanders Campaign 201 ABC, Told her it would be $200. She only has $150. She will get back to us if she wants to reserve.
I find gems like this as enjoyable to read as the monthly Willy Street Co-op Reader comment section, because I’m a true scandal-skimming glutton of a Midwesterner like that.
While most of us have experienced subpar working conditions, offensive-to-outright-abusive executive mentality, slim-to-no employee benefits, and many more types of workplace harm and dysfunction, the vast majority of Wisconsin workers are not represented by a union. In years since Scott Walker’s Act 10 horror show, unions in Wisconsin have taken a hit. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, our union membership rate is 8.1% of employed Wisconsinites (2019 data), below the national average of 10.3%, while neighboring states Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois have rates around 14%. Union membership has been on a steady decline for decades in the US (it’s now half what it was in the ’80s) but there’s a growing buzz of late as presidential hopefuls appeal to the working class and historically non-union sectors begin to ponder the possibility. Even locally, unions are showing new life at workplaces including the Willy Street Co-op and Journey Mental Health Center. (Also, did you know that nonunion workers earn only 81% of what union members earn? Organize!)
The Labor Temple itself (1602 S. Park Street) is a nondescript, horizontally rectangular brick building with a digital sign near the street that repeats “UNION YES” in beady red letters. I’ve passed by the building mindlessly thousands of times. As one approaches from Park Street, it’s difficult to gain a sense of activity coming from the salutatory building, but the vast parking lot around back hosts a fleet of white work vans, while a few gas grills out of commission for the winter months huddle by the exit doors. Nearer to the building, one can spot colorful pro-labor posters propped in office windows. Inside, trophy cases line the long hallways with historical relics such as a framed copy of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners of America charter dated July 12, 1899, a photography display viscerally captures the Act 10 uprising of 2011, and an open stairwell unfolds into an uplifting mural that depicts hard-won local labor victories over time. What doesn’t stand out, most hours of the day and most days of the week, is The Lounge—a humble watering hole inside the Labor Temple, even though it’s the first thing you pass when you enter the main entrance at the back of the building.
I came to know of this overlooked gathering spot when I was navigating a recent employment dispute and a resulting unemployment claim. A free legal clinic for unemployment cases operates out of the Labor Temple on Monday evenings, so I attended a couple of consultations. When I left a session one evening, I spotted some neon lights. Seemingly a mirage due to how out-of-public-sight The Lounge is (signs are exposed only to the back parking lot), it struck my curiosity. I wasn’t able to drop in that evening but I knew I’d be back to take a closer look. Little did I know then that I’d return as a union member in my then-future (now-present) work gig. I returned to The Lounge a couple of times recently only to find it closed. A chalkboard on the door, translucently erased, stated the hours of Tuesday-Thursday, open at 2 p.m. I had come on a Monday, and too late (9 p.m.) on a Thursday. I tried calling various numbers gleaned from the website and sent a couple emails, and eventually connected with someone who clarified that The Lounge hours are Tuesday through Thursday from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., though the bartender sometimes closes early depending on business.
The third time was the charm, and a friend and I saddled up near a basket of peanuts to order a couple of beers in an otherwise empty bar. I don’t know—I guess I was hopefully imagining a roomful of Ironstache types with construction hats lined up the length of the bar. Let this be a humbling reminder of the limitations of my imagination. Instead of being swept up in the worker solidarity I had fantasized about, I decided to carefully take in the space itself. There is a horseshoe-shaped bar in a decent sized room with tall cocktail tables surrounding it. A handful of tap beers are on offer as well as a selection of a couple dozen bottles. Though there’s a grill top off to the side, the kitchen isn’t operating at this time. Frozen pizzas, chips and candy are for sale, however, and peanuts are for the taking. The space is clean and simple, with standard Sconnie-bar accents—a pull-tab machine, a touch-screen wall mounted jukebox, neon beer signs here and there, and some TVs which were tuned to either the Bucks versus Raptors game or the Democratic debates in South Carolina that particular evening.
I acquainted myself with pull-tabs for the first time in my life (ahem, that’s a legal workaround if I ever saw one and I definitely plan to follow up and participate for free by submitting some no-purchase-necessary entry forms just to prove it, and you should, too, because we all have nothing better to do with our lives than defy the patriarchy in the most artisanal of ways), patiently assisted by the friendly bartender (I won $3!), and soon, a few patrons trickled in from within the building. Some stopped in briefly, others gathered in a small group to watch the debate. Again, my fantasy bubbled up a little—I envisioned a lively scene about to erupt in agitation, camaraderie and revelry, but in reality it was just a person eating a sandwich and some mid-level opining on the democratic presidential candidates’ platforms, disappointingly void of any discernible passion.
I decided that my victory would simply be my subtle convening with fellow union members (my union isn’t local so I’m an ugly duckling desperately yearning to be taken under someone’s wing) as we participated in the electoral process (you know, watching the TVs) – a debate in which unions were mentioned a whopping four times. My heart rate first peaked when Elizabeth Warren stated that she unfortunately didn’t have union representation when she was a teacher, became pregnant, and at that time in history was faced with parting ways with her employment. “Elizabeth Warren! Do you know where I am right now? I’m watching you talk about unions from the Labor Temple Lounge! That’s right! Solidarity! Resist!” “Bernie! The people’s candidate! Do you know where I am right now? I’m at the Labor Temple Lounge as you speak to the working class! Not me, us! Tax the wealthy elite! TELL AOC HI!”
While I’ll definitely be back to enjoy the reprieve of the unpretentious space with an undercurrent of pro-worker energy (it will remain so in my head and heart anyway), what ended up being the most fantastical part of the evening was enjoying a self-guided tour of the stairway mural and the hallway tunnel of labor movement art, history, and municipal job postings while floating a little on a three-beer buzz. It was like a dreamy school field trip for grown-up civics nerds and I highly recommend it.
New this week:
Alice Herman details the hateful significance of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty’s suit against the Madison school district. Illustration by Rachal Duggan!
The Wisconsin Film Festival’s 2020 guide is out, and we’ve got some tips on how to plan your viewing.
Saxophonist Maggie Cousin leads a forward-looking residency at Cafe Coda.
On our podcast, a conversation with bassist Nick Moran about his travels in jazz.
Four Star Video Heaven celebrates its grand reopening this Saturday.
More events of note in this week’s Madison calendar.
Elsewhere on the Madison internet: Julian Lynch begins releasing short music clips on Instagram. Madison musicians Ilana Bryne and DJ Speedsick both have tracks on a new benefit compilation supporting human rights for Palestinians. Mama Digdown’s Brass Band is once again headed to New Orleans.
Upcoming Tone Madison Events!