by Kate Childs Graham | July 11, 2012
Woody Guthrie and Tom Morello (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Fans of Woody Guthrie are celebrating the folk icon’s centennial this week, as what would have been his 100th birthday approaches Saturday. Guthrie’s songs, penned as he traveled the country in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, captured the plight of working women and men. He left a legacy as both a musician and an activist committed to social justice. And he continues inspiring today’s musicians, from Bob Dylan to Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and the Nightwatchman. Morello is winning critical praise and awards for his advocacy on behalf of working women and men everywhere. AFSCME WORKS talked with Morello about why he’s passionate about unions and the lines of Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” they didn’t teach you in school.
You stood on the steps of the Wisconsin Capitol last year, firing up the crowd with your music. And this past June you came again for a rally to recall Gov. Scott Walker. What made you decide to take on that fight?
My mom was a public high school teacher in Illinois for over 30 years. So, when Governor Walker began attacking public service employees in Wisconsin, I took it personally. As soon as I heard about what was going on, I was on the first plane out there to do whatever I could for the cause. I strongly believe that unionism is the counter balance to corporate greed and malfeasance. If they can break unionism in Wisconsin, they can break it anywhere. We aren’t going to let that happen.
While on the road, have you seen that spark that was lit in Wisconsin catch fire in other states?
Yes, in Ohio where they defeated that awful bill (S.B. 5). Also, I think that as we near the potential recall of the Wisconsin governor, it is an important, galvanizing moment for working people and for unions. We need to do more than just stop bad legislation. That plan means we’re just barely holding the line against our extinction. We need to expand workers’ rights, not just hold on to what we’ve got.
Many AFSCME members were there with you in Wisconsin. What was that experience like, to stand in front of so many people fighting for their rights and working families?
Union public service workers are very dear to my heart. The day that I got back from Wisconsin last February, I wrote a song called “Union Town” about my experience in Madison. That was fleshed out into an eight-song record under the same name and I donated all the proceeds to the union struggles across the Midwest. The courage of the public service workers in Wisconsin and across the country has been a great inspiration to me and my music.
While we’re talking music, what is your favorite protest song?
Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Many don’t know it’s a protest song because when you were eight years old and sang it in school, they censored out the three radical class warfare verses. But if you listen to the song in its entirety, it is a great alternative national anthem and a great protest song.
You yourself are a member of Musicians Union Local 47 and the Industrial Workers of the World. What does it mean to be in a union?
I grew up in a union household. It was crystal clear from the time I was a tot that unions were our counter-weight to the bosses getting away with bad things. Whatever you let them get away with, they will. If you’re alone, you don’t stand a chance in fighting it. But when we come together as a union, we can be very powerful.
This Q&A first appeared in AFSCME WORKS magazine. Click here to read the latest issue.