In the Union Strongholds of Central Appalachia, Labor Struggles for Health Benefits Echo in Teacher Vaccination Efforts

Robert Mitchell has taught in the Pittsburgh public school system for 26 years, but COVID has drastically changed what his school day looks like. Instead of being in the classroom with his students, Mitchell has created a digital workspace in his home where he teaches his middle school students Spanish. Photo: Justin Hayhurst/100 Days in Appalachia
Robert Mitchell has taught in the Pittsburgh public school system for 26 years, but COVID has drastically changed what his school day looks like. Instead of being in the classroom with his students, Mitchell has created a digital workspace in his home where he teaches his middle school students Spanish. Photo: Justin Hayhurst/100 Days in Appalachia

Robert Mitchell gets up while it’s still dark.

Since the pandemic began last March, Mitchell, who has taught in the Pittsburgh city school system for 26 years, rises early to make sure his digital classroom is set up for the day. 

Between lesson planning – which includes some off-screen Spanish exercises for his middle school students at Pittsburgh Classical Academy – Mitchell allows more time than he did before the pandemic for stretch breaks and check-ins with his students. “I want to know how they are doing,” he said. 

Across the state line (well, a couple if you’re driving), Jessica Salfia teaches six English and creative writing classes at Spring Mills High School in Berkeley County, West Virginia. Unlike Pittsburgh Public Schools – which has been completely online for the past year – West Virginia teachers had to consult a county-by-county color-coded map of the state each week to determine whether or not they would be teaching 100% online or in a hybrid format that included limited in-person instruction. 

The lack of consistency made for a tough year as teachers had to create lesson plans for in-person and online classrooms simultaneously, something Salfia called a “bricks or clicks” system.

“It’s been an enormous source of stress,” she said. 

High school English teacher Jessica Salfia, seen here in August 2020, has had to navigate a sometimes weekly decision by education administrators that determine whether she’ll meet with her students in-person or online. She calls the process the “bricks or clicks” system. Photo: Raymond Thompson Jr./Resolve Magazine
High school English teacher Jessica Salfia, seen here in August 2020, has had to navigate a sometimes weekly decision by education administrators that determine whether she’ll meet with her students in-person or online. She calls the process the “bricks or clicks” system. Photo: Raymond Thompson Jr./Resolve Magazine

Between them, Mitchell and Salfia have 43 years of teaching experience. Both say the past year has been the hardest they have ever worked in their careers as teachers. 

Something else they have in common: Mitchell and Salfia come from regions with rich labor histories that date back more than a century. Unions for workers in the steel and coal industries fought for healthcare benefits and better job conditions for those workers. 

Those struggles have informed the tactics of teachers unions to this day — particularly notable during the COVID-19 pandemic amid a vaccine rollout and clamoring for a return to in-person teaching. It’s little surprise that gender and race continue to play a role in how educators are perceived and treated throughout such a crisis, too.

As teachers in Central Appalachia begin to get shots en masse, we explore the ripple effects of labor history on today’s teachers.

Unions, health care and teacher vaccinations

U.S. union members enjoy better access to employer-sponsored healthcare benefits than their non-union counterparts. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 95% of union workers were eligible for such benefits in 2019, compared to 68% of non-union workers. 

In a way, recent tensions over vaccinations for teachers reflect similar battles fought by coal and steel unions to protect such benefits.

In 2019, the United Mine Workers of America successfully lobbied Congress to fund the healthcare and pension benefits of 100,000 of its members and their families. It was the latest chapter in a debate that stretches back to 1946, when President Harry Truman took over the nation’s coal mines during a massive coal strike involving 400,000 miners. 

The Truman administration reached an agreement with the United Coal Workers of America that established healthcare and pension funds guaranteed by the federal government. 

Steel unions have also worked over the years to protect health benefits, efforts that continue today. United Steel members in Harrison, Pennsylvania, voted overwhelmingly on March 5 to support a strike. Among the key issues: healthcare costs, wages and other benefit protections. 

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis said public school teachers in the city have fought to protect wages and healthcare benefits for the profession for as long as she can remember. 

“I watched my father fight for those benefits,” she said. “And we are in negotiations now to protect them.”

Pittsburgh teachers expected to be vaccinated in phase 1B of the state’s rollout plan, right behind healthcare workers. However, at the end of January, Gov. Tom Wolf expanded group 1A to include all Pennsylvanians over the age of 65, pushing teachers further back in the vaccination line. 

“It really threw us for a loop,” Esposito-Visgitis said. 

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice speaks to the public during a March 22, 2021, COVID-19 update. For nearly a year, Justice has been giving his pandemic updates without members of the media physically present. Photo: State of West Virginia/Flickr

Late last year in West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice assured teachers that they were a priority and would be vaccinated by the end of January 2021. The governor then announced that schools would reopen for in-person instruction on Jan. 19. 

But then, the state’s Department of Education announced that teachers who had not been vaccinated would have to register along with the general public through the state’s vaccination website. Educators expressed frustration, and West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said the state had “broken its promises in prioritizing teachers for vaccination.” 

In West Virginia, teachers and students returned to K-8 classrooms in early March. In Pittsburgh Public Schools, some students in high-needs groups will start returning to schools April 6, and the district recently announced they expect all students to return to in-person learning before the end of the school year.

Women and activism in West Virginia

Teaching has been associated with women as a profession since the 19th century. Currently, about three-quarters of the nation’s public school teachers are women. In fact, according to one study, there has been a steady increase of women in the teaching profession over the past several decades.

In West Virginia, women have long been at the front of the line when it comes to grassroots labor activism. Jessica Wilkerson, a history professor at West Virginia University, said the role women played in fighting for the health and safety of coal miners is echoed in the struggles of teachers today. 

Jessica Wilkerson, a professor of history at West Virginia University, has spent much of her career studying women in labor movements and their impact particularly in Appalachia and the South. Photo: Jesse Wright/100 Days in Appalachia

In her recent book, “To Live Here You Have to Fight,” Wilkerson profiles the life of Frances “Granny” Hager, the wife of a coal miner who died of Black Lung Disease in 1962. 

Hager spent the rest of her life advocating for the rights of workers, organizing activists around the passage of the 1969 Mine Health and Safety Act, which included benefits for miners disabled by Black Lung Disease. Women also led the fight for a safer working environment in the late 1970s, Wilkerson said, after they began working in the coal industry.

Some scholars say one explanation for the trend of women being the majority in teaching is the relatively low level of importance attached to teaching as a profession in the United States compared with other countries. Men tend to gravitate toward careers that are considered to be important because of the societal status that comes with them. Higher-status jobs usually come with higher salaries. A 2018 report showed that teachers were in the middle of the pack in terms of job status in the United States. In some of the other nations surveyed, they enjoyed the same prestige as doctors.

The result, said teacher Jessica Salfia, are gendered assumptions about how educators should behave and what motivates them, and a perception that they are caregivers rather than skilled and highly trained workers. “The idea that teachers are doing it for the kids, that we should be willing to sacrifice for them comes to mind,” she said. 

Jessica Salfia stands in her empty classroom at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in August of 2020, five months after the novel coronavirus pandemic forced her to teach in an online classroom. Photo: Raymond Thompson Jr./Resolve Magazine
Jessica Salfia stands in her empty classroom at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in August of 2020, five months after the novel coronavirus pandemic forced her to teach in an online classroom. Photo: Raymond Thompson Jr./Resolve Magazine

“Of course I love students or I wouldn’t be a teacher. But I also want to be treated like a professional.” For teachers, she said, that includes a right to be safe at school. Right now, that means being vaccinated. 

From Wilkerson’s perspective, it makes perfect sense that teachers would demand to be vaccinated before returning to work. Much like the coal workers who demanded safety measures before producing the coal that powered the nation, educators provide a vital service.

“Teachers reproduce our society,” she said.

Pittsburgh, race and labor history

Pittsburgh is known all over the country for its steel town history and as a union stronghold. Much like their coal mining brothers and sisters, steel unions have a lengthy history of fighting for fair working conditions and healthcare benefits dating back to the Homestead Strike of 1892. 

Barges carrying Pinkerton guards arrive in Homestead, PA in July of 1892. The ensuing battle with striking steelworkers is considered a turning point in the U.S. Labor movement. Source: Homestead. A Complete History of the Struggle of July 1892, between the Carnegie·Steel Company, Limited, and the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. Photo: Arthur G. Burgoyne
Barges carrying Pinkerton guards arrive in Homestead, PA in July of 1892. The ensuing battle with striking steelworkers is considered a turning point in the U.S. Labor movement. Source: Homestead. A Complete History of the Struggle of July 1892, between the Carnegie·Steel Company, Limited, and the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. Photo: Arthur G. Burgoyne

On July 6 of that year, 300 Pinkerton Security Agency guards clashed with about 10,000 workers at the Carnegie Steel Works plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, 7 miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh. Many of the workers were members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, the largest steel and iron union in the nation at the time. 

At least ten people died during the battle, and the Pinkertons eventually surrendered. Henry Clay Frick, who ran the steelworks for industry mogul Andrew Carnegie, was seriously wounded in an assasination attempt in the strike’s aftermath by Alexander Berkman, a non-union affiliated Russian national. Carnegie’s reputation suffered, but the attempt on Frick’s life dampened public support for striking workers. The strike marked the beginning of the end of the Amalgamated Union. 

“You could say the workers won the day, but lost the battle,” said Charles Lumpkins, who teaches labor history at Penn State University. Steel union membership in Southwest Pennsylvania plummeted after the strike. By 1900, there were no union steelworks in the state of Pennsylvania. 

Unions and their historic fight for healthcare benefits for workers is especially relevant in Pittsburgh, where 53% of students enrolled in the city’s public school system are Black. 

Data from a handful of states and collected by Johns Hopkins University shows that Black Americans are three times as likely to get sick with COVID-19 and more than twice as likely to die from the disease than whites. The CDC released a report last year showing that Black Americans are more likely to have COVID comorbidities, such as heart disease and diabetes, which often exacerbate virus symptoms.

Middle school Spanish teacher Robert Mitchell says Pennsylvania officials should consider the heightened risk of illness for minority students and their families when making decisions about vaccination availability in the state. Black Americans are three times as likely to get sick and twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than whites. Photo: Justin Hayhurst/100 Days in Appalachia
Middle school Spanish teacher Robert Mitchell says despite the challenges of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year, his ability to participate in his local union standing up for the rights of teachers but also workers in other fields is a point of pride in his career. He’s spent 26 years as a member of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. Photo: Justin Hayhurst/100 Days in Appalachia

That underscores the urgency of getting teachers vaccinated in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, said teacher Robert Mitchell: “It’s an important lens through which we need to see the situation in terms of teachers getting vaccinated. Black students and their families face a lot of risk.” 

Lumpkins, who also studies the Black working class, said unions are ultimately about making the lives of all workers better. 

In the early 20th century, coal companies exploited race to pit Black and white coal miners against each other. But early coal unions were notable for their relatively equal treatment of Black and white miners, especially in West Virginia. “Their thinking was that mining accidents don’t discriminate based on skin color, so we shouldn’t either,” he said.

Lumpkins noted that nationally union membership is on the rise among Black workers, and data shows that union membership also helps when it comes to narrowing the wage gap for non-white workers.

Union activism’s place in education

Robert Mitchell and Jessica Salfia miss seeing their students. They understand the strain parents and kids have felt during the past year. 

Robert Mitchell, who teaches Spanish at Pittsburgh Classical Academy, says he misses seeing his students in person and understands the strain not being in the classroom has been on his students, but he says he wants that return to be safe for everyone. Photo: Justin Hayhurst/100 Days in Appalachia
Robert Mitchell, who teaches Spanish at Pittsburgh Classical Academy, says he misses seeing his students in person and understands the strain not being in the classroom has been on his students, but he says he wants that return to be safe for everyone. Photo: Justin Hayhurst/100 Days in Appalachia

“Our kids, their parents, their families, us teachers….we’ve all had enough! Only one thing could keep us apart; the valid concern we have for each other’s safety,” said Mitchell in his testimony before the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee on March 3.

Both teachers say that union activism is a point of pride in their work. Mitchell joined the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers 26 years ago in his first year on the job. He has manned phone banks and marched in solidarity with workers from other unions throughout his career. 

Salfia demonstrated at West Virginia’s Capitol in Charleston during the 2018 public school worker strike in that state. During the nine-day work stoppage, about 20,000 teachers and roughly 13,000 other public school employees walked off the job. 

A key issue for strike participants, although often overlooked in the national media coverage of it, was the rising cost of healthcare benefits. 

The strike sparked a nationwide movement. Nearly half a million people, most of them teachers, went on strike in 2018 in the United States – the most in a generation

“I think most people who choose education in West Virginia inherently see themselves as activists in a way,” Salfia said. “Because you’ve chosen a job that allows you to literally make the world a better place every day.” 

For her, making sure teachers are vaccinated so they can safely mentor and educate the next generation is part of that activism.

Laura Harbert Allen(she/her/hers) is a freelance writer, audio journalist and Ph.D. candidate at the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University. She can be reached via lauraharbert.net or on Twitter @laurahallen.

This story was fact-checked by Danielle Cruz.

This article was co-published with PublicSource, a nonprofit news outlet in Pittsburgh with a mission to inspire critical thinking and bold ideas through local journalism rooted in facts, diverse voices and the pursuit of transparency.

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