If you grew up listening to heavy music in the 1990s or 2000s, you know who Tom Morello is, and have probably thrashed yourself silly to at least one of his anti-authoritarian battle cries. As the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, he’s toured stadiums around the world and sold millions of records; he held the same role in Audioslave, and made a big splash on mainstream radio while he was at it. He’s been a prolific solo artist, releasing acoustic protest songs under the moniker the Nightwatchman, and has collaborated with a laundry list of icons, from Run-DMC and Bruce Springsteen to Boots Riley and Anti-Flag, all the while finding time to squeeze in work as a writer, producer, actor, podcaster, and activist (more on that in a moment). All of that is to say: The guy’s a bona fide rock star who’s used to playing massive stages for adoring crowds—so it was more than a little surreal to see him and his guitar standing on a rickety wooden stage in rural Alabama, peering out at a scattershot crowd of retirees, little kids, and striking coal miners, preparing to (acoustically) rock their socks off.
Some of the older folks, and most of the youngest folks, were confused about who he was, but those who fell in the generational sweet spot were pumped, and they greeted his arrival with an appreciative roar. (They also kept him busy taking selfies and signing autographs all evening.) Tom Morello—rock star, union man, and great-grandson of a coal miner—had come to Brookwood, Alabama, to show his support for the 1,000 union members who have been on strike at Warrior Met Coal for the past year and a half, and they were more than happy to welcome him to the struggle.
To back up a little, though, you may be wondering: How exactly did he end up there? Morello has been a loud and proud supporter of unions and workers’ rights for decades, and has popped up on many a picket line. During his most recent appearance on The Tonight Show, he shouted out striking workers from a number of unions, including the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and created a new labor anthem with his song “Hold the Line.” Despite some dedicated efforts, the strike hasn’t gotten much media attention; tucked away in the backwoods of Tuscaloosa County, a good 40-minute drive from Birmingham, a historic, protracted battle for dignity, safety, and fairness has been taking place between a Wall Street-owned coal company and 1,000 blue- collar workers with families and dreams. But unless you know somebody involved or are already paying attention, chances are you’ve missed the story entirely. As Morello told me in an interview for Rolling Stone, though, catching his attention was easy—a UMWA staffer tweeted at him about it, and once Morello spotted the message, the gears started turning. A week or so later, he was standing in a field outside the Local 2397 union hall, sound checking his famous “Arm the Homeless” guitar with help from a bearded retired coal miner who proudly bears the nickname Union Santa.
That wasn’t his first stop, though. That morning, Morello had traveled to Montgomery to take in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which he described as a profound experience that connected to the struggle the miners still face at Warrior Met. “Every one of those people [who were being memorialized] was lynched because of some perceived challenge to white supremacy, to an existing order of power, and these miners, there’s a parallel; it’s a challenge to an existing order of power that the mine owners will not allow,” he explained. “The relatives of people who were lynched, and the relatives of people who may not have balked at some of those lynchings, are on the same picket line today, because of working-class solidarity. That is diversity, and the clearest message of all is that class solidarity erases racism. It does. Because you see a fellow worker as someone who’s a person, who has a family like you do, and that together—the power structure that you’re confronting is monolithic capital that does not have your best interests in mind. And that your brother in the mine and on the line is someone who you can count on. And that’s what I saw today.”
When Morello (and the film crew who were following him for an upcoming project) made it to Brookwood, they beelined for the strike pantry, where an enormously dedicated group of women have devoted countless hours to keeping this strike alive. As the old saying goes, an army marches on its stomach, and keeping the striking miners and their families fed for the past year and a half has become a Herculean task. While the strikers do receive a biweekly check from the UMWA strike fund, the amount is only enough to cover the basics, and many families have come to depend on the strike pantry to fill in the gaps. It’s run by the UMWA Auxiliary, which is composed of spouses, family members, and retirees, and depends on donations from local businesses as well as outside supporters to keep the shelves stocked with groceries, baby supplies, and hygiene items. When Morello got there, the women were filling up grocery bags with canned goods and other shelf-stable foods to distribute among the strikers; but many hands make light work, and Morello quickly joined in after being assigned to dessert duty (this week, it was red Jell-O packets).
By the time the pizza Morello’s crew had ordered showed up, everyone was more than ready for a break. It’s not every day that a rock star swings by to help you divvy up packets of ramen noodles and canned green beans, but whether there’s a famous visitor present or not, it’s work that still needs to be done, and these women do it every week—the same way they’ve been doing it for the past 18 months. There’s a set routine: After the bags are sorted at the strike pantry, they head over to the union hall to prepare food for the weekly rally, then serve it, then handle the cleanup. Most of them are parents, and many have full-time jobs on top of their voluntary union work. This part of a strike isn’t glamorous, but it’s necessary, and without these volunteers, the entire operation crumbles. It was good to see Morello chatting it up with striking miners, but the time he spent with the Auxiliary members gave a much-needed and well-deserved boost to these unsung heroes.
One thing that Morello said he found surprising after speaking with the Auxiliary women was the amount of international support the strike has gotten, even as it’s been ignored by the powers that be in Alabama. “The food and the money and stuff that they get from other countries’ unions, from Croatia to England—where the unions [are] like, ‘We support you,’ that was really, really incredible,” he told me. “If only they could have that much support in their own city, and in their own state in their own country.”
Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case, and support from local and national politicians, along with coverage from local and national media, has been hard to come by. When it comes to the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Department, though, what the miners have received is the opposite of support. Thanks to the latest in a seemingly endless stream of injunctions against the union, miners’ right to picket has been greatly restricted—a mere eight people are currently allowed to picket in front of each of the mine’s multiple entrances. When Morello stopped by to join workers on the picket line, he had to keep an eye out for local police (who have established a firm track record of siding with the company, not the workers). He stayed long enough to meet with some of the workers on the picket line, though, and hoisted a sign himself before it was time to hustle over to the rally site.
While strikers and their families were excited to see rock star Tom Morello in the flesh, Morello himself was visibly moved from meeting them. “Every man, every woman, and every little kid that I met today was like, ‘We will not break, we will not bend, and we will be here until we win,” Morello told me. “And I don’t think the other side understands that. They think that if this is something that is sort of kept in the dark, and nobody knows about that, they’ll wait them out.”
The looming specter of the greedy coal boss is nothing new to the Warrior Met strikers, nor is it to the generations of people who had made their living—and worked themselves to death—in this country’s coal mines. Morello’s own family is no exception. Once he got settled in on stage, he shared the story of his great-grandfather, Quinto Morello, who emigrated from Italy and settled in Central Illinois. There, he and his four brothers found work in the coal mines, and little Tom grew up hearing about the dark, dusty world they inhabited. “They never saw daylight as adults,” he told the crowd, a red bandana around his neck and a UMWA camo shirt on his back. “So I’m here for them, playing in their memory, and I’m here for you, because you’ve had the strength and courage and resilience to fight for the next generation and the generation after that, to ensure dignity and justice in the workplace.”
That’s exactly what he did, running through a low-key half hour of covers (Steve Earle’s “The Mountain,” Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”) and targeted originals, like “Union Town,” “Hold the Line,” and “Union Song,” the latter of which he wrote in the aftermath of a riotous G8 protest in Miami. The performance felt loose and friendly; he was introduced by AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson’s teenage son (the family was in town celebrating his birthday), and led a chant of the strike’s motto, “One day longer! One day stronger!” It was a far cry from the bombastic guitar wizardry he’s best known for, but as Morello told me after the rally, the quieter revolutionary tunes he plucks out on his acoustic feel just as powerful. “Over the course of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of shows and strikes and barricades and marches, this side of my artistry has felt the one that’s most at home,” he explained.
He certainly seemed at home onstage. During the last song, Morello invited the crowd to come up and join him in belting out the chorus to “This Land Is Your Land.” The rickety stage itself may have groaned under the unexpected stomps and hollers, but for those precious few moments, all was right in the world, and everyone up there was smiling.