Every year on May 1, workers around the world celebrate the trials and triumphs of working people. This year, May Day comes with a bold soundtrack thanks to Tom Morello, the Nightwatchman.
While May Day is not a national holiday like Labor Day, it celebrates workers across the globe. It began in the United States in 1886 to commemorate the martyrs of the Haymarket riot and the fight for the eight-hour workday. But what good is a working-class holiday without good working-class music?
This year, Morello, the pioneering guitarist behind the politically charged rock group Rage Against the Machine, has partnered with the Teamsters to promote songs from his union-inspired album, “Union Town.” He is giving away his music on the Teamster.org website in honor of May Day 2013. Morello has worked with the Teamsters in the past, performing at the 2011 Teamster rally in Los Angeles and the Teamster Convention that year. Accompanying the May Day 2013 “Union Town” giveaway, the following Teamster Nation interview with Morello gives us a look at his inspiration and insights on music and the labor movement.
Question: Through your music you’ve been involved in many different movements and social justice causes. But you’ve been especially involved in labor and union activism. Why?
Morello: I come from a coal mining family in central Illinois and unions were always a big part of the life and fabric of the town. It was always ingrained in me from the time I was a little kid that it’s the solidarity of workers that is a crucial counterbalance to corporate greed. And if we don’t stand up together, we will certainly be taken advantage of individually. I’ve been a member of Los Angeles [American Federation of Musicians] Local 47 since 1989 and a member of Industrial Workers of the World as well. I think in a time when the working class and unions are being assailed in the United States, I do my best to fight back with my music.
Given your labor upbringing, had you always aspired to dedicate an entire album to labor and union songs or was that more inspired by recent events?
It was more inspired by recent events. Some of the songs, specifically “Union Town,” were written in response to the labor uprising in Madison, Wisconsin. “Union Town” is a combination of original compositions of mine and classic labor songs that are set with a Rage Against the Machine attitude – including “Solidarity Forever,” Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” and “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.” Since that music is an important part of the history of labor struggle in this country, I wanted to compile my own vision of labor songs with some of the union classics into one cohesive record – and then give it away!
Workers have been facing a tremendous corporate and political assault in states around the country. Do you see any bright spots for labor right now?
I definitely see a lot of bright spots because despite this relentless one-sided class war that the business elite have been carrying out against labor, we’re still here. Whether I’m playing at the anti-Wal-Mart rallies, at your Teamster Convention a couple of years ago, or standing in the streets of Madison in the freezing cold, you see there’s still a labor movement that is very much alive and well. It’s certainly under assault and they’re doing everything they can to undermine our power. Corporate America wants to run roughshod over us and enact their agenda without the rights of working people getting in the way. They want to make the whole world into a Wal-Mart sweatshop and one thing that stands in the way of that are unions like the Teamsters.
What do you think it’s going to take to turn the tide against the war on workers?
I think as workers we need to stand together in these tough times. I’ve been a part of the Coalition of Immokolee Workers to the janitors here in Los Angeles. My music has been a part of some historic labor victories in this country. I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture because we are under a dire attack. But in times like these, the key thing is solidarity. We have to remember that we’re all in this together.
We also need stand by our principles. One thing I see a lot is, in the name of getting the right Democratic congressman in office, we’ll sometimes compromise our core values. Just look at the example of Wisconsin. The last thing in the world either political party wanted was a working-class uprising in Wisconsin and they did everything they could to head it off. One thing I want is a working-class uprising on a national scale – on a global scale. That’s what my songs are about. So I don’t think we should sell ourselves short. We should aim high and shoot for the moon.
We’ve seen a lot of inspiring flashpoints of labor struggle in recent years, including the Republic Windows and Doors factory occupation, the protests in Wisconsin, the Verizon strike and the recent Chicago teachers strike. But these are also defensive battles. Now workers at Wal-Mart and fast food chains are going on the offensive by organizing and striking. What do you think of the potential these new struggles have for organized labor?
I think it’s crucial that, rather than just trying to barely hold as our rights are slowly eroded, we recognize the correct strategy is to go on the offensive. And it’s really key to have each other’s backs. Again, Madison is a good example. There was an opportunity there to shut down much of lower Wisconsin, demanding the governor’s resignation and a 10-point workers’ bill of rights. Everybody from junior high school students to firefighters were in the capital. We need to realize that we really are in this together. If one ship starts sinking, the rest of us have to buoy it up. And if one of our ships starts to turn the cannons on the enemy, we all have to turn our cannons at the enemy.
One of the things that struck a lot of people about the protests in Madison was the amount of young people involved. While you do tend to see more young people involved in campaigns against sweatshops and the like, unions have really struggled to bring more youth into the labor movement as active rank-and-file union members. How do you think that can be changed?
That is something which I think we have to look at very hard. One thing to remember about Madison is that it came on the heels of the Egyptian uprising in Cairo, which was also a social media event. People across every age and ethnic group halfway around the globe were standing up against a tyrannical power. Madison was also the first big occupation, claiming the capital building – and it predated the Occupy movement by some six months. That’s important because I think young people are drawn to bold action, not to politics as usual – not to backroom deals in smoke-filled rooms with compromise politicians.
What Tahrir Square and Madison had in common was old direct action against clear injustice and it galvanized entire regions. And then it got diluted by politics as usual. The air got let out of that balloon and it wasn’t because the other side pushed back too hard. It was because our side was afraid of how big that balloon might get. That’s why I think the next time the historical circumstances line up, we need to really take matters into our own hands and have a real grassroots leadership.
You’ve picked May Day as a day to give away some of your music on the Teamster website this year. You sing about May Day in your song “A Wall Against the Wind.” It’s an international working-class holiday that began in the U.S. and has been all but forgotten. What’s the significance of this day?
Well, it wasn’t forgotten. It was intentionally moved off of May 1 to disassociate United States workers from workers around the globe. Part of the reason of doing this record and giving it away on May Day is to re-educate people in this country about the importance of May Day as a day that celebrates our struggles and celebrates our victories. It celebrates the long history of people in this country boldly standing up and sometimes sacrificing their lives for things that we take for granted. Things like the weekend, the fact that children are not working in coal mines, and the protections we have on the job. Those are things they fought tooth and nail against and we only have them because of the historic struggles of the labor movement. Hopefully future generations will be able to look back at us and those coming after us as people who stood proudly for rights that are unimaginable in these times – rights many don’t even dream of yet.
There’s also been a resurgence of May Day actions in recent years specifically because of immigrant rights protests. How do the struggles of undocumented workers relate to the spirit of May Day?
A good deal of the labor force now and throughout American history is comprised of immigrants. This country is wholly made up of immigrants and their descendants, except for the Native Americans. We should be paying a great deal of respect to the people who immigrate here. Reform is long overdue, but not just reform. The basic respect and dignity that all people deserve need to be afforded to people who immigrate here. And our May Day parade here in Los Angeles is now tens of thousands strong thanks to the labor movement and the immigrant rights movement recognizing that they are one and the same.
You’ve chosen music as your medium to further social justice and labor issues, whether it’s through Rage Against the Machine or as the Nightwatchmen. What’s the connection between music and these struggles?
There’s never been a successful social justice struggle without a great soundtrack. From the Civil Rights Movement to the anti-war movement to the labor movement, songs have been a great unifier of the working class. Often people of disparate cultural backgrounds can unite around a love of music, and when it contains a potent class-conscious message, those songs have been an important part of steeling the backbone of those involved in labor struggles throughout American history. I am one more link in that chain – a proud link in that chain that goes from Joe Hill to Woody Guthrie to Pete Seeger to Lead Belly, Public Enemy, the Clash and Rage Against the Machine. Music of various genres can put the extra wind in the sails of people who are standing up for their rights.
What’s your message to Teamsters and workers everywhere on May Day 2013?
My message to Teamsters and workers around the globe on May Day is a message of solidarity and pride in the countless accomplishments, victories, and struggles of workers around the globe, especially here in the United States. I will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with my brothers and sisters on the frontlines of workers’ struggles, social justice struggles, and do it all with a rocking soundtrack.