Belltown’s aromatic union hall has been a gathering spot and a home for workers since 1942.
DESPITE WHAT WILL be revealed herein as a rather obvious need, there is no such thing as a National Register of Historic Odors. But if there were, the politically charged air inside Seattle’s Labor Temple would be on it.
Not that this is the only historical cachet of the building that has long served as the home of Seattle’s historically defiant labor movement. The temple’s place on Seattle’s landmarks registry was ensured by the building’s brick exterior, brightened by that trademark red-neon sign, by its marble hallways and main meeting hall, perhaps even by the dark wood bar in the basement imbibery semi-affectionately known to regulars as “The Pit.”
But what really makes the throwback building at the corner of Clay Street and First Avenue unique is the air. Or to be more blunt, the infamous smell of the place — a curious miscegenation of old funk and new possibilities.
Many a union loyalist — most of whom approach this in good humor, but woe be the outsider who casts haughty aspersions — has taken a stab at describing the eau de Labor, which to this observer contains essences of disinfectant, cracking Naugahyde, mahogany and … other stuff.
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“It smells like a combination of a faint vestige of ancient cigarette smoke, Lysol, old carpet, guys and then a strange smell of something smoldering,” says one local labor leader, who asked that her name be withheld because she is not authorized to describe smells seven decades-plus in the making.
Close. But short by a few cigars.
“The hallways have a certain smell. They just do,” acknowledges longtime labor leader Steve Williamson, who plied the halls for years as executive director of the M.L. King County Labor Council. “It’s part like you’re going back to first grade, part old government building, part grimy, part no-one-gives-a [rip]. All that combined.”
QUESTIONABLE AIR aside, everything else about the Labor Temple — from outward appearances, a brick-and-mortar anachronism in a city being forcibly transformed into Sea Francisco — reeks of civic history.
An easily overlooked, three-story brick rectangle amid a sea of condominiums and hip Belltown shops hawking wall beds and organic dog biscuits, it is by no means an architectural gem. Its historical significance is largely cultural.
Labor temples, built by the hundreds nationwide in the early 20th century and now largely disappearing, have long served the dual role of housing union offices and providing a safe space (literally, in the old days) for workers’ meetings. Many also serve as de facto community centers for progressive political groups and other like-minded organizations.
Labor leaders and historians point to Seattle’s Labor Temple, home today to 30 tenants and an active food bank that fill all the building’s offices, as both a traditional home to a local labor movement that has defied national trends, and a monument to the spirit of working-class Seattle laborers who have been trailblazers for more than a century.
“That building, what went on there, and still goes on there, often leads the country,” Williamson says. “Seattle has long been on the edge of labor politics.”
Most of this dynamic — the long, rich history of local labor struggles, and the often-virulent, conservative backlashes to same — likely would be a mystery to the many thousands of young Seattle newcomers, some of whom live in Belltown condos next door to the nondescript labor hall and walk to work every day at Amazon.
That’s another reason the Labor Temple, which has survived multiple Seattle growth waves, including the breakneck gentrification of Belltown, should be preserved, many of its occupants say.
But can it survive the spiraling land-value aspects of the current boom? Ideally, yes, but probably not in its present state.
Economic realities make it unlikely that the well-worn home of Seattle’s rich labor tradition, born on the waterfront docks in contentious labor battles in the early 20th century, will look the same in a decade as it does today.
THE BULLDOZING of the familiar has become a dizzying ritual in Seattle, as a new economic growth spurt continues to remake the urban landscape. To the nostalgic, lovers of history and treasurers of sense-of-place, the slapping of the dreaded black-and-white “NOTICE OF PROPOSED LAND-USE ACTION” sign on any familiar structure is always a sad omen.
Why, the sign-gazer might wonder, didn’t somebody speak up for this place when all the decisions were still going down? It’s worth noting here because those decisions, for Seattle’s Labor Temple, are going down right now, and likely will come to a head next spring.
The Labor Temple, dead center in what used to be known as the Denny Regrade, has been home to the Seattle labor movement since 1942, when local unions left the original Labor Temple at Sixth and University (the famed and ill-fated 1919 Seattle General Strike was hatched there) for a larger, two-story building, which eventually expanded both in width and height, to its present three stories.
The building proved to be a magnet for new offices of the region’s largest trade unions, which built their own headquarters within walking distance, forming a virtual Belltown labor district. Most of those unions, capitalizing on increasing property values, have since sold out and moved to the suburbs. But the Labor Temple, its occupants stressing the symbolic and practical importance of keeping the labor movement visible in the heart of the city, has stubbornly resisted.
Whether it continues to do so is up to the nine voting members of the Seattle Labor Temple Association — all officers with unions or descendants of unions that built the place (if anyone knows a living member of the Ice Carriers Union, tell him to stop by and sign some long-overdue paperwork).
In June, association board members authorized the hiring of a consultant to explore near-term options for the building, which building manager Erik Van Rossum acknowledges “has a lot of deferred maintenance.” The possibilities:
• Do nothing, and hope for the best. For decades, even as land under the Labor Temple has skyrocketed in value, this has wound up as the default option. Consensus has emerged that this isn’t a sound strategy (see next option). But there’s a strong incentive for tenants in the building, which is fully leased, to stay put: Office rents here are $19 per square foot — a fraction of the going rate for the downtown core.
• Stay, and remodel. The Labor Temple needs substantial upgrades, including expensive seismic retrofitting. These have yet to be ordered by the city; nobody expects that to last.
• Move out. The building could be sold outright at a healthy profit (the Labor Temple, remarkably, is debt-free) or traded for a similar property elsewhere.
• Stay, remodel — and build up. This option, the favorite of many union shareholders, would take advantage of city incentives for higher density and, especially, affordable housing by keeping the Labor Temple proper as it is, adding multiple stories of residences above.
The latter plan is driven partly by market realities, partially by philosophy: One of the greatest gifts Seattle labor could provide to blue-collar workers today — especially those in retail and other labor sectors who need to live near their work in the city — would be affordable housing. And a sky-reaching Labor Temple building with rent-paying tenants above would help finance the necessary upgrades to the historic building serving as its cornerstone.
“We want the Labor Temple to exist for the next generation of workers — for the next 50 years,” manager Van Rossum says. “Time is on our side. All options are on the table, but people would like to stay in the building they’re in.”
AMONG THOSE people is the first woman and youngest person to head the storied M.L. King County Labor Council.
In June, in her second-floor, southwest corner Labor Temple office, Nicole Grant, 39, pulls on the down jacket she keeps handy to ward off office drafts; takes a seat among a collection of freakishly large, dark-wood furniture; and reminisces about the building’s iconic place in the heart of Seattleites past and present.
“The landmark status … is really based on the soul of the building,” she says. “It’s because this was one of the largest ongoing, continual centers of worker power, temples to worker power, in the United States.”
Like many of her peers, Grant grew up here. Her father, a leader of the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union (IBEW), used to bring her to the basement restaurant, back then known as Gompers, in honor of Samuel Gompers, credited as the father of American organized labor. She fondly remembers the French toast.
“I’ve always been in labor,” says Grant, who was elected as head of the labor council in the summer of 2015, and has been called by other prominent local labor officials “a breath of fresh air” for the organization. She became a Seattle union worker as a teen.
“I started working at QFC in high school — the Broadway QFC that doesn’t exist anymore. All those workers I worked with then still work at QFC, either above Bartell’s or at the Broadway Market. Every time I go to one of those stores, I see people I know. It’s still a real career. That’s part of what the labor movement is protecting: You can live on Capitol Hill and work at QFC.”
Grant is a realist, well-versed in the statistics that show union membership continuing to slide nationally — to 10.7 percent last year.
But she points with pride to a recent spurt in union growth in the progressive political bubble of King County, where the labor council still claims 150 unions representing more than 100,000 workers. The same local construction boom that has driven up land values and put the Labor Temple on the hot seat has been a boon to building trades unions long dominating the labor council’s roster.
“We have a lot of unions that are growing,” Grant notes. The electrical worker’s union, IBEW 46, which was her father’s union before it became hers, is at an all-time membership high, she says.
“Some things are just flat-out not going out of style,” she says. “Such as electricity.”
Washington state union membership grew by 39,000 between 2015 and 2016, increasing the workplace rate from 16.8 percent to 17.4 percent and making it the fifth-most unionized state in the nation, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Nationally, numbers continue a slow decline.
State union growth is not all related to Seattle’s building boom. Labor leaders recently hailed a contract bargained with Sakuma Brothers Berry Farm by 500 mostly immigrant farmworkers in Skagit County, ending a four-year struggle by a new Burlington-based union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Service industry unions, such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), also continue to grow.
“They represent the workers who care for the elderly,” Grant says of the SEIU. “The elderly and their caregivers are not going out of style, either.”
Grant pauses to reply to a text message; activity is swirling at the Labor Temple because the labor council’s monthly membership meeting is approaching, and union factions are lining up behind a half-dozen different candidates for the upcoming mayoral election.
“There’s going to be fireworks next week!” she predicts, with a glint of excitement.
THE MAIN AUDITORIUM at the Labor Temple is no stranger to political pyrotechnics. For seven decades, it has hosted some of the city’s most-passionate debates about unionism, local and national politics, civil rights and other matters of concern to Seattle’s decidedly left-leaning movers and shakers — here, unlike much of the country, still the political mainstream. Countless national politicians have given stump speeches inside these walls; civic campaigns have been birthed and buried; heartfelt arguments made for or against potential workplace strikes. For better or worse, people remember.
The June labor council meeting, it turned out, was less dramatic than expected, thanks to a decision not to weigh in, yet, on a preferred candidate in the wide-open mayor’s race. The meeting instead turned to more of a traditional union gathering — part revival, part commiseration session, part business, with ample doses of group therapy to pump up union leaders and members.
John Scearcy, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters International 117, reported on recent successful contract negotiations for 120 yard-waste and recycling haulers. The pact included pay increases that Scearcy says closed much of a long-contested pay gap between his workers and garbage haulers for Republic Services, which serves some of the Seattle area’s tonier neighborhoods.
“We’re just here to report that we kicked their ass!” Scearcy says, drawing loud cheers. “They can mess with us on labor law. But they still haven’t figured out how to beat people power.”
Other union leaders report on a phone-in campaign against Republican state senators seen as holding up a budget agreement; a planned rally outside Amazon.com, whose overall tax rate is derided by a speaker as “half that of Walmart”; and derision for Boeing moving jobs to the Southwest. Four Latino workers on strike at a local rebar company receive a rousing standing ovation — a union tradition — and appear visibly humbled by the support.
Near the end of the meeting, Seattle mayoral candidate, state senator and longtime unionist Bob Hasegawa takes the floor to urge union members to join him and other members of the Japanese-American community to march in Seattle’s Pride Parade. It’s worth remembering, he notes, that it was only 75 years ago that his parents and their families were sent, after stays in horse stables at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, to an internment camp at Minidoka, Idaho.
“This is why the Japanese-American community has been so strong in support of the Muslim community,” Hasegawa says. “It’s why we stand up whenever we see oppression.”
THAT SENSE of kinship, which now crosses once-firm boundaries of gender and race, is what makes the Labor Temple a unique gathering spot worth preserving, many in the labor community say. Williamson, married to newly elected U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, has never forgotten the Temple’s role as a literal sanctuary for peaceful protesters during a Seattle Police crackdown on the World Trade Organization protests in the city in 1999.
His predecessor at the head table of the labor council, Ron Judd (no relation), now a state Department of Transportation strategist, shares those sentiments, and says that while he understands the market forces pressuring labor officials to act on the Labor Temple’s future, he hopes it can stay put.
“That’s our home,” he says. “It’s been our home for decades.”
Judd says he understands from personal experience the temptation for labor to move on, but stresses the importance of having a central city location for a movement that is best built by looks in the eye and handshakes.
“If you’re not in the middle of the action, you will get forgotten pretty quickly,” he says.
The building, a stone’s throw from Seattle’s waterfront, which gave birth to the union activity that fills its halls, still gets the job done, Judd says. It might not look sexy or smell great, and surely could use a face-lift. But the old union hall, he believes, remains a vital organ in the local body politic.
“It’s the heartbeat of the labor movement.”