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Tom Morello on the Frontlines With Alabama Coal Miners: ‘Anywhere You Strike, I’m Coming’

BROOKWOOD, ALABAMA — Tom Morello is used to playing arenas, and now that Rage Against the Machine has stirred back to life as a touring unit, he’s spent the last few months rocking out in front of supersized crowds with a full stage show and plenty of bells and whistles. It’s all business as usual for him, but yesterday, Morello found himself in a very different environment, playing for a very different crowd, for a cause that was very close to his heart. He was there to show support for the 1,000 members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), who have been on strike at Alabama’s Warrior Met Coal since April 1, 2021, and who have endured months upon months of hardship, uncertainty, and violence from a Wall Street-backed company that seems hellbent on starving them out. Eighteen months into their grueling battle with the coal bosses, the miners are still holding the line, but are in desperate need of support. After Morello caught wind of their struggle through a chance Twitter exchange with the UMWA, he made some calls, grabbed his guitar, and hopped on a plane.

Brookwood is a long way from Los Angeles, but before the rally even began, it was clear that Morello — a lifelong advocate for workers’ rights who grew up in a coal-mining town and is a proud member of not one, but two unions — felt right at home. He’s no stranger to a picket line or a protest, and has been a vocally pro-union voice for decades. The rocker dropped by the strike pantry earlier that day to help pack up grocery bags, and visited striking miners on the picket line, listening intently to their stories as scab workers’ trucks rumbled by. When the rally kicked off at 6 p.m., he was greeted by a wall of the union’s trademark camouflage clothing; in lieu of a mosh pit, the evening ended with a prayer. Admission was free, and so were the 800 hot dogs that the women’s auxiliary had painstakingly prepared as the evening’s refreshments. 

As he stood on the rickety wooden stage that had been hastily erected in front of the union hall earlier that day, Morello surveyed the hundreds of coal miners, retirees, and their families who had spread out in the grass in front of him, and smiled. “My name is Tom Morello, and I’m a union man!” he roared, kicking off a half-hour of acoustic fury that saw him bust out several originals (including the very apropos “Union Song” and “Hold the Line”) as well as covers of Steve Earle’s haunting coal mining ode “The Mountain,” which he was playing live for the first time ever, and a rousing rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” that saw him invite a dozen or so miners onstage to help holler out the chorus. That final moment of joyful, sweaty solidarity made it clear that even though there was a bonafide rock star in their midst, everyone knew it wasn’t about him that night. It was about them.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What brought you to Brookwood, Alabama tonight?
I am here specifically because I tweeted out something about a strike or my support of labor more generally, and then a gentleman involved within the United Mine Workers in this Alabama strike retweeted me and said, “Hey, Mr. I’m So Interested in the Labor Movement, we’ve been on strike for over 500 days. Why don’t you come to Alabama?” I hit him back and said, “OK!”’ It’s honestly super easy. If you have a strike that I can get to and don’t have, like, a kids’ football game stopping me from doing it, I will come!

The bigger picture is that I’m a lifelong supporter of radical working-class movements, and the United Mine Workers has been inspiring to me for decades. I’m a member of Los Angeles Musicians Local 47 and the Industrial Workers of the World, and it’s my firm belief that the best chance we have to topple injustice is through working-class solidarity. And here, where people have sacrificed so much and put their families and their lives and their wellbeing on the line for a year and a half, is a place where I can certainly take a couple days out of my life to go play a few songs to help put some steel in the spine on the picket line and wind in the sails of the strike if I can. 

You have a personal connection here, too; as you mentioned on stage, your family were coal miners, and you come from a small coal mining town. 
The Morellos were coal miners. My great grandfather, Quinto Morello, and his four brothers came from Italy to mine coal in central Illinois; they landed in Marseilles, and worked the Marseilles mine for their entire lives. The stories that filtered down through the generations were that these guys got up in the morning before the sun came up, went into the mines, worked their 12-, 13-, 14-hour shift, and came out of the mine after the sun had gone down. For their entire working lives, they never saw the sun, and didn’t know their children, because they worked seven days a week and spent their entire lives slaving away under the earth, because they didn’t have a union to stand up for them and to help them stand up for themselves. That is one of the reasons why I have always passionately been a union advocate, and why a coal miners’ union strike particularly catches my interest.

And yet, as we’re seeing with this strike, with these workers who are trying so hard to carve out a decent life for themselves and their family, so little has changed down in those mines. 
Whatever rights and protections that exist are because of unions, and because people have sacrificed and struggled in the past, just like these Alabama United Mine Workers are sacrificing and striking now. It’s just one more link in the chain. The dynamic is identical. It’s the insistence on capital supremacy that is keeping them down. The owners have spent 10 times more on breaking the union than they could have spent to accede to the legitimate demands of the strikers. The idea is that they will not abide by an alternative power in the workplace. They must be the sole deciders of what workers’ lives are like, and they’ll use disinformation, and they’ll use the press and they’ll use the courts and the legislature and all of their power and prestige and skeevy tactics to undermine the demands of the workers. 

A couple things that I heard again, and again, were one, that these miners are not going to give up; this mine has been devastating to them, it’s been devastating to their families, and they will hold out forever, if that’s what it takes to win. And that’s very inspiring, because they’re not just doing it for themselves. And two, that this is a historical moment in the labor movement; from Striketober on, we’ve seen a rising tide of labor militancy in the United States that we have not seen in generations. The outrageous change of weather in Amazon organizing, in Starbucks organizing, of young people recognizing that through solidarity and through labor unions, they have a chance to transform their lot — not just their lives, but their society — is one that is very, very real. We were just on the picket line across from one of the coal mines, watching the scabs move coal around, and one guy who had been working for four years was in tears. He’s destroyed by this, but he’s committed to fighting to the end. Another who had been working for like 37 years was like, “I wanted to retire, but I’m in this until we win.” He said, “Look, I’m not a radical, but I just want a decent life for my family.” I said, “That’s the most radical thing in the world to want.”

Right now, right here, we have over a thousand multiracial, multigender blue-collar workers in the Deep South who have been fighting a company that’s backed by Wall Street — an old enemy of yours — for almost two years. It should be a headline story everywhere. Why isn’t it?
That’s an excellent question, why is it not? It is a modern day David-versus-Goliath story, where you do have these multinational corporations, hyper-millionaires who are doing their best to stamp out an Alabama working-class movement. I think one of the most powerful things that was said [tonight] by the head of the union was that everyone on the other side of the negotiating table are millionaires. I was there today when they were putting bags together so that children won’t starve to death; that’s on the one side, and on the other side, the people who own the company that are making the decisions on how to treat the union, have three or four homes in the Hamptons, one or two yachts. This is a heroic American working-class struggle that everybody should get behind.

And here’s the thing: the United Mine Workers is no joke, man. They were the sledgehammer of workers’ rights for 100 years, from out West to West Virginia. They will not be threatened, they will not be intimidated in the courts or on the picket lines, and they’re very, very inspiring to me. I’m glad to have come down to play a couple of songs for them.

As a Wobbly yourself, it probably feels pretty good to be down here hanging out with Mother Jones’ friends.
Yeah, Mother Jones didn’t start till she was 60, I got a little earlier start! But like I said, my ancestors were miners. Anywhere you strike, I’m coming.

Is that a promise or a threat?
It depends which side of the picket line you’re on.

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