The Nightwatchman, Tom Morello's solo act, saw his return to political activism through music after a year of playing with apolitical rock band Audioslave. In the past, he has stood up for great causes, such as a protest against a guitar company that fired and dislocated its Korean workers, in order to avoid paying taxes and repairing a shoddy working environment.
Morello's most recent defense of workers' rights brought him to the Wisconsin State Capitol. There he protested alongside thousands of workers from all walks of life against Republican Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to end the right of state employees to collectively bargain.
On Feb. 21, 2011, in the bitter cold outside the Capitol, Morello performed such classics as Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," and Rage Against the Machine's hit song "Guerilla Radio." But the protest didn't end with tunes alone. Morello then proceeded to pick up a bullhorn and make a highly profound and stirring speech. "They think people aren't paying attention," he said. "They think they can just sneak through this legislation that would rob us of decades of social progress. We didn't pick this fight. Walker tapped us on the shoulder and said 'let's fight.' And now we're gonna knock his legislative teeth out."
"It really was a spontaneous uprising," marvels Morello in retrospect. "The biggest demonstrations since the Vietnam War era. It's my hope that this is a watershed moment in U.S. labor history. This can be the moment where young people realize that where they have power in this country is by standing shoulder to shoulder with their fellow workers."
Perhaps just as powerful as this mass gathering of working class people is Morello's new song, "Union Town," which is the first true mainstream rock song in a long time to openly defend unions. "This is a union town, a union town - all down the line," Morello sings, amidst clips of Wisconsinites standing up for their rights. "Union Town" packs a musical wallop, one that really drives the message home. (story continues after video)
Says Morello of Walker's agenda: "It is an effort to bust unions, not just in Wisconsin, but to start the dominoes falling to break unionism in the U.S. The governor and his billionaire cronies and right-wing pals want to make this a country of the corporations. And to that end, they have to strip the unions of their ability to be the counterbalance to the raw, corporate greed that torpedoed our economy and is savagely attacking a century of hard-fought social progress."
"We work for a living," Morello continues fervidly. "It's my job to stand where I work as a musician to help steel the backbone of this movement."
What's inspiring is that the fight for unions is not only being fought in Wisconsin, but championed through songs that will be heard the world over. After a brief period punctuated by a lack of progressive-minded lyrics in heavy music, it is refreshing to see a revival of positive ideas via this art form.
The battle is far from over, but in the coming days, expect to see new songs of hope sung in working class communities, and during protests like the historic one in Wisconsin.
Tom Morello will release his Union Town EP on May 17; all proceeds will go to benefit The America Votes Labor Unity Fund.
Image: Tom Morello, by Blake Deppe/PW