Frostbite and Freedom: Tom Morello on the Battle of Madison

Photograph by Narayan Mahon for RollingStone.com
Tom Morello performs at the Capitol in Madison, WI.
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I've played hundreds of protests. I've marched on dozens of picket lines. I've strummed my guitar at innumerable demonstrations. I've been arrested more times than I'm willing to put in print in support of striking workers. But I thought now is the time to take a break. I have a 16-month-old son crawling around on the floor and another baby boy about to be born any day now, so I decided to curtail the traveling, the protesting, the rocking.

And then I turned on the news. For days I had been following the exciting events in Cairo and across the Middle East. But when I turned on the television and saw 100,000 people marching through the streets of MADISON, WISCONSIN to protest an anti-union bill put forward by some schmuck named Governor Walker it caught my attention. I turned to my wife and said, "Honey, our boys are gonna grow up to be union men." She sighed and replied, "The Nightwatchman is needed. You should go."

And so The Nightwatchman went.

A nice lady at the airport looked at my guitar and politely asked, "Why are you going to Madison, young man?" I replied, "Because they're making history in Madison, ma'am. And I don't want to miss it."

So I flew to Chicago with Wayne Kramer (of the legendary MC5) only to find that all the flights to Madison had been cancelled due to a big winter storm. But neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor dark of night can keep The Nightwatchman from his appointed task. My good friend and fellow musician from Libertyville, Illinois, Ike Reilly, picked us up at the airport and together with our small crew of rabble-rousers we began the precarious journey up I-90 through the storm. Cars and trucks were piled up in the ditch along the roadside, but with fortitude and constant reminders from elder statesman Wayne Kramer that "We're in no hurry here. Slow down, brother," we made it safely to Madison.

Upon arrival, we linked up with the Boston band Street Dogs and Tim McIlrath from Rise Against, all sturdy union supporters. We had a great meeting with representatives of the AFL-CIO to make plans for the following day. They have been one of the unions spearheading these historic protests but I sensed that they were somewhat nervous about me staying "on message." Perhaps they had read stories about riots at Rage Against the Machine shows, or maybe because I was decked out head-to-toe in my Industrial Workers of the World gear. Anyway, I was eager to get to the Capitol building and into the action.

The Capitol building in Madison has been occupied by students and workers for more than ten days now. But at 11 PM the doors are locked, and if you're in, you're in, and if you're out, you're out. We were out. And so one of the protesters on the inside claimed that I was his intern in order to slip me through security. Once inside, I was amazed at what I saw: the building was packed with a cross section of the people of Madison, all demanding justice. There were students, teachers, firefighters, policemen, veterans, nurses, old hippies and young rebels in every corner and corridor of the building. There was a festive spirit in the air and a determined feeling that they were indeed making history. On my way out, I was actually "bro-ing down" with some cops…AT A PROTEST. Quite new for me. The police were union men themselves, and wholly supportive of the protesters, and I thought, "This is a strange and new, exciting day indeed when the police are delivering bratwurst to the students occupying the State Capitol and high-fiving The Nightwatchman."

I met my friends at a local townie bar across the street. At this bar were two big, burly, drunken Packers fans. The kind of fellas I might normally avoid if I ran into them on tour, but things are different here in Madison. These big, teddy bear Packer fans were even more militant in their support of the union and of the protests than the kids in the Capitol. Together they led the entire bar in blaring pro-union chants (and anti-Governor Walker slurs); and they may have even bought a round of shots or two for some of the skinny musicians in the corner.

After a few spirited hours, I was certain: these people in Wisconsin are not going to give up, they are not going to give in and if there is any justice in this world these good people will defeat Governor Walker's awful anti-union bill. This right-wing governor has tried to take advantage of a recession brought on by Wall Street malfeasance to try to ram through legislation that would roll back decades of social progress. But he and his corporate shot callers miscalculated by taking on THESE people. We didn't ask for this fight; Governor Walker tapped us on the shoulder and said, "Let's fight." Okay, dude, it's on. And now we're going to knock your legislative teeth out.

The next morning, we met with union representatives and each of the musicians was assigned a local Wisconsin worker to do our interviews side-by-side, because it was important for all of us to keep the emphasis on the workers involved in this struggle on a daily basis. I spent the next few hours doing press with Natalie Parker, a nurse and member of SEIU 1199, and her young daughter. I learned from them that this is not a fight about fixing a broken state budget as the Governor claims. The unions have already conceded every single economic issue at hand. The only issue that they won't concede, that they should never concede, is the right to collectively bargain – the right to be in a union and the right to stand together. Especially in the area of education this is crucial. The five states where collective bargaining is currently outlawed (S. Carolina, N. Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia) are the five states with the lowest SAT/ACT scores in the country. Where does Wisconsin rank with it's strong teachers' union? Second in the nation.

At noon we were off to Capitol Square, to finally play some music. Madison's Mayor estimates that more than half a million people have marched here over the past ten days, without a single arrest. So despite the frigid temperatures and a whipping icy wind, the crowd was huge, peaceful and pumped. First up was Ike Reilly, whose homespun tales and improvised lyrics about the struggle struck a chord with the crowd of thousands. Next up was Street Dogs who played an inspired cover of Billy Bragg's "There is Power in a Union" and an original called "Up the Union" that had the crowd roaring. Wayne Kramer then rocked a number of great tunes as we awaited the rest of the day's labor delegation to arrive. Poor Wayne's luggage had not made the trip to Madison, so in a thin coat, Wayne was out there fighting the good fight as his fingers turned frostbite blue. Tim from Rise Against somehow played dexterous versions of Neil Young's "Ohio" and Credence Clearwater's " Who'll Stop the Rain" while his angelic punk-rock voice echoed through the streets.

Next up was yours truly, The Nightwatchman. I opened my set with "Union Song," a song I wrote for days like this. ("Now dirty scabs will cross the line/while others stand aside and look/but ain't nobody never got nothin'/that didn't raise their voice and push!") By the end of "Union Song," I had no feeling in my fingers and it felt like I had frozen crab claws at the end of my arms. I actually dropped my guitar pick at one point and didn't even realize it because I couldn't feel my claws. For the finale all the musicians came on stage for a version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land." We re-inserted the radical verses that were censored when you learned this People's Jam in the third grade, like: "In the squares of the city/in the shadow of the steeple/near the relief office/I see my people/some are grumblin'/and all are wonderin'/if this land's still made for you and me?" The crowd pogo-ed all around the capital, and with the spirit of solidarity in the air, it was clear to me that if we stick together we are going to win this fight.

Next, the whole gang went into the Capitol building, which was thunderous with a wild drum circle punctuating a speech given by the President of the International Steel Worker's Union, who vowed to keep steel workers in the capital building 24/7 to defend the protestors from being evicted. He dared Governor Walker to come and debate this issue face to face. The rotunda was DEAFENING with chants and drums. It really felt like the eye of a hurricane, the dawn of a thrilling new movement. The scene made me think of the famous Gandhi quote: "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."

I was standing down the hallway from the speeches wanting to get a closer look, when all of a sudden several union reps started yelling, "Clear a path for The Nightwatchman! Clear a path for The Nightwatchman!" Well, The Nightwatchman and his crab claws just wanted to warm up and watch the festivities, but all of a sudden someone shoved a bullhorn in my face and stood me up on top of a rickety chair, and I was pressed into delivering an impromptu speech. I related our experiences so far and what an inspiration the people of Wisconsin were to me and to all those who support workers' rights around this country. I told them that I've been a proud union man for 22 years, as part of Musicians Local 47 in Los Angeles, and a Red Card carrying member of the IWW, and that for me this fight was personal, because my mom, Mary Morello, was a public high school teacher for almost three decades in Libertyville, Illinois. And while we never had much money, we always had enough food on the table and we had clothes on our backs because my mom was a union teacher. And if Governor Walker is going to attack the rights of people like my mom, then The Nightwatchman is coming for his ass.

The evening's rally was moved into the huge indoor convention hall nearby as temperatures continued to plummet, and so the other musicians and myself had a hasty rehearsal and then shared some shots of Jameson (the people's Irish whiskey) with the Presidents of the Policemen's Union and the Firemen's Union and some intimidating-looking firefighters (I'm pretty sure they were all off duty). The hall filled up with about 5,000 people, and the show was on. As far as I'm concerned, while I enjoy a well-delivered political speech, it was clear to everybody in the room that it was time to rock. So with acoustic guitars in hand, we set out to prove that on this night the revolution will not be amplified.

The same line-up that rocked the Capitol steps took the stage again (expect Tim, who had an early flight) with each of the artists playing a longer set. Ike Reilly, Street Dogs and Wayne Kramer drove the place into a frenzy and I did my best to keep the momentum going with songs like "The Fabled City" and "Maximum Firepower," ("If you take a step towards freedom/It'll take two steps towards you.") The crowd seemed appreciative. Then all the musicians came onstage for an explosive version of the MC5's "Kick out the Jams," a rafter-rattling "There is Power in a Union" and then a mosh pit-inducing "This Land is Your Land" where the crowd bounced en masse like they do at some of those huge European festivals.

Two days earlier I had received a letter from Amor Eletrebi, one of the principal organizers of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. I read it to the crowd:

"To our friends in Madison, Wisconsin:

We wish you could see firsthand the change we have made here. Justice is beautiful, but justice is never free. The beauty in Tahrir Square you can have everywhere, on any corner, in your city, or in your heart. So hold on tightly and don't let go, and breathe deep Wisconsin! Our good fortune is on the breeze, in the Midwest AND in the Middle East. Breathe deep, Wisconsin…because justice is in the air! And may the spirit of Tahrir Square be in every beating heart in Madison today."

At that point there was a tremendous amount of solidarity and togetherness in the room, but still not ENOUGH solidarity as long as there was a barricade between the musicians and the audience. So I invited the entire audience up on stage. Together we sang the grand finale, "World Wide Rebel Songs," a new Nightwatchman track.  As the rebel song sing along chorus echoed around the room, voices and fists were raised. I'm certain somewhere nearby Governor Walker was trembling in his high-thread-count sheets.

The battle to preserve workers' rights in Wisconsin is a watershed moment in US history. Wisconsin is Class War Ground Zero for the new millennium and a crucible for people's rights in the United States. As the gulf between the haves and have-nots grows exponentially in the US it is here that the first domino is going to fall…one way or the other. If things go poorly, workers across the nation will be stripped of some of their most fundamental rights – to organize and to collectively bargain, to make a better life for themselves and their children. Were it not for hard-fought union struggles of the past, we wouldn't enjoy some of the most basic human rights that we enjoy today. The next time you "have a good weekend," you can thank the union for fighting for those two days off. If your eight-year-old son doesn't work in a coal mine or your ten-year-old daughter doesn't slave away in a textile mill, you can thank the union. Unions are and have historically been a crucial check against untrammeled corporate greed.

That's why they're worth fighting for. And that domino could boomerang back the other way and Gov. Walker and his billionaire pals could be in for a BIG surprise. If we can harness the energy of those tens of thousands in the streets, the energy in the Wisconsin State Capitol rotunda, the sky's the limit. In the immediate aftermath of our trip to Madison, Florida governor Rick Scott announced that he was no longer going to pursue anti-union legislation. Indiana Democrats have walked out en masse and have left the state to stop anti-union legislation from coming to the floor of the Indiana State Senate. 10,000 workers marched in Columbus, Ohio for their rights. Workers have caravanned from California to support the protesters in Wisconsin. And in Manhattan, 300 New York supporters of the Cheesehead Revolution, wearing those crazy Packer Fan Cheese Hats, were chanting, "Kill the bill! Kill the bill! Kill the bill!" in Times Square. Something IS in the air. Across the globe people are demanding justice. Across the globe tyrants are falling.

 The future of worker's rights in this country will not be decided in the courts or in Congress, on talk radio or on Fox News. The future of worker's rights in this country will be decided on the streets of a small Midwestern city, on the streets of Madison, Wisconsin. And who knows? Maybe in your city too. Yeah, this land is our land, and to those occupying the Capitol building tonight, or marching in the streets across the Midwest tomorrow, and to the people still deciding which side they're on at this historic crossroads, I'd like to pass along some advice from the immortal Woody Guthrie: "Take it easy…but take it!"