Growing up less than a mile away from the site of the 1892 Homestead strike in Pittsburgh, a steadfast union city, I never thought my first picket line would be in Washington, D.C. 

On December 7, 2023, I spent my lunch break on the picket line alongside journalists from The Washington Post as the Washington Post Guild, representing more than 1,000 employees, continued ongoing negotiations with management. Their unit had spent the past 18 months negotiating a new contract and – like journalists in dissatisfied newsrooms across the country, including Condé Nast, the Chicago Tribune, the Orlando Sentinel, the Virginian-Pilot, and more – they decided to strike.

While not a part of their union, I felt it was important to show up and join in solidarity. Growing up in Appalachia had taught me that you show up for your neighbors whenever and wherever you’re able.

My own Appalachian hometown newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has been on strike since October 2022. The Post-Gazette is where I landed my first byline in 2016. As a high school journalist, I covered high school theater there as a Kelly Critic, a program jointly run by the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and Post-Gazette to train and support student critics. Having my work published for the first time and receiving feedback from professional art critics empowered me in an essential way that set me down the path of arts and culture journalism and community storytelling that I’ve been on ever since. 

Now, eight years later, I’m an arts and culture journalist based in D.C., and hearing the sounds of the D.C. picket line that day so clearly echoed the soundtrack of Appalachia, showing solidarity to union members in their demands as an outsider and adding to the diversity of the gathered crowd made me recall all I’d learned growing up in an Appalachian union city, long after I had moved away.

D.C. is the site of many protests, both nationally and locally focused. While the geographic terrain may be different from where I grew up, a lot of our core issues facing the city’s residents are the same as elsewhere in the country. Workers are overworked and underpaid in their roles, communities are experiencing rising costs or being pushed out of the places they’ve long called home, and management does everything possible to prevent organizing against it. No matter where you are, it’s the same song just sung in a slightly different tune. 

The scene at the December 7 strike looked remarkably similar to the United Steelworkers Labor Day parades I grew up attending each year in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh. I joined a crowd of people from all walks of life making signs, waving tambourines, and chanting labor messages and songs together in unison. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, our salary floor is much too low!” chanted strikers. Scabby, the infamous rat, lorded over us in D.C.’s Franklin Park as we worked together to make our voices heard by Washington Post executives. Hot chocolate, coffee, and pizza were passed out to the sea of red coats, beanies and scarves. Everyone ate, laughed and marched together – reminding the striking journalists and their supporters alike what a union fight is all about. The laughter and chants created a symphonious sound that rang out across the park and made me miss the sounds of home. 

As a journalist who covers both music and movements, I’ve often returned to a rally’s ability to sound like a concert. Union chants and songs are the soundtrack of Appalachian movements and politics. Infuse that with the go-go and punk influences of D.C. and you have a beautiful backing track to the labor movement our country is experiencing right now across regions and industries. 

2023’s “hot labor summer,” the Washington Post strike and my years as a freelance journalist continue to remind me of the necessity of unions for workers of all industries. I joined my first union this year, and I’m very proud to bring my Appalachian background to it even if it’s not the type of union my grandparents’ generation ever imagined possible. 

My Appalachian roots have exposed me to all types of labor my whole life. When I studied political science and sociology at a liberal arts college, there was an optic obsession with supporting union and researching labor, but I quickly realized many students didn’t have much familiarity with union politics or dynamics. They didn’t understand why the nearest UAW Local wouldn’t immediately accept the well-intentioned but misdirected organizing help of a bunch of college students from the coasts. I see the same patterns repeated by non-union members in D.C. looking to help out unions without knowing exactly how to do so.

One of the greatest lessons growing up embedded in a union town revealed to me was the importance of outsiders meeting union members where they’re at, and not overstepping internal union dynamics and politics. My experience as the child of a very pro-union Pittsburgh household (if not members of a union themselves) taught me to do all that we could to support workers. That lesson carried me through union battles in college and right to the Washington Post’s picket line in December.

Whether it be donating food to be consumed by the hungry crowd or providing additional people from other unions as more bodies on the picket line, offering a tangible good or service is a straightforward way to support a union. As a writer, I’ve seen firsthand the impact of offering pro bono services like writing press releases or graphic design work. Growing up, I watched people provide childcare services or offer rideshares. Being on the DC picket line was a reminder that we don’t need to learn new skills to help a union–asking the union what they need and attempting to fill that gap is often perfect.

As more and more industries unionize to provide viable careers for their workers, these new unions can learn from the Appalachian union histories that precede them. The fate of our country rests in the hands of our unions. Our conditions may seem bleak, impossible even, but unions bring us hope and solidarity in a time desperate for it. Look to Appalachian labor lineages and join your loved ones on the picket line to propel you on a collective path forward. A better world is possible for us all and Appalachian labor provides us a roadmap of how to get there. It might be mountainous terrain but the destination of liberation is worth it. As I continue on my own journey as a union member, I will think back lovingly to those Labor Day parades and other Pittsburgh protests of my childhood. Whether in Appalachia, D.C., or elsewhere I’ll listen for the protest songs and use my voice to help them grow louder.  

Originally from Pittsburgh and forever Appalachian, Serena Zets is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. They are a regular contributor to Washington City Paper, alongside other outlets, and firmly believe in the power and necessity of local journalism.

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This article was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia, a nonprofit, collaborative newsroom telling the complex stories of the region that deserve to be heard. Sign up for their weekly newsletter here.