The decision to hold the concert Wednesday at the non-unionized Bradley Center was "bafflingly ironic and somewhat infuriating," said Paul Friday, who coordinates the Milwaukee chapter of a union of musicians, actors and stage hands.
"We're not really protesting," he said. "We just want people to know Springsteen's taking the music of a very pro-union campaign into a venue like that."
Springsteen spokeswoman Marilyn Laverty did not immediately return a call left after business hours Wednesday.
Springsteen's "Seeger Sessions: We Shall Overcome" one-night performance at the downtown Milwaukee arena is part of an 18-show U.S. tour in which he performs Seeger's music.
Seeger, now 87, either co-wrote or popularized canonical songs such as "If I Had a Hammer" and "John Henry." He sang the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" with others at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960.
About 15 to 20 local union members held a folk sing-along and distributed leaflets with union messages and the lyrics to "We Shall Overcome" outside the arena before the concert.
"You can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union," they sang as they did a Woody Guthrie song, "The Union Maid," that Seeger has often performed.
The decision to hold the concert at the Bradley Center was based strictly on the venue's capacity and configuration, not its union status, said Fred Frank, president of Frank Productions in Madison.
"We usually figure out how many seats we have to sell to pay expenses and find a venue that provides that," said Frank, whose company booked the Bradley Center for the show.
If Bradley Center employees are not unionized, that's their choice, according to Evan Zeppos, a spokesman for the arena.
"It's not management's decision — it's up to them," he said. "Hopefully part of it is we respect workers there, treat them properly, give them competitive wages and a strong benefit package."
Union leaders have tried to organize Bradley Center employees, and "we just want to raise awareness," Friday said.