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Frostbite and Freedom: Tom Morello on the Battle of Madison

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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.

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