Unionization efforts became one of the biggest stories of 2022. Chris Smalls led Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York, as they successfully fought to form the global corporation’s first union; railroad workers went on strike against the railroad industry due to a lack of paid sick leave; and according to a Gallup poll, our approval of unions is at its highest since 1965. This fight to be represented through organizing and advocacy has also made its way to Baltimore.
The Starbucks in Mount Vernon, the Apple store in Towson Town Center, and the Enoch Pratt Library System are all places where Baltimoreans decided to come together for better working conditions in a time when the rich get richer off the backs of the working class. But there’s one group of young people from all over Baltimore City Public Schools who are working specifically to represent students’ needs and demands: the Baltimore Student Union.
Ethan Eblaghie, a junior at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, started this organization with a couple of his friends after volunteering during the school board election in October of last year. He serves as Poly’s chapter leader.
“We started an Instagram page, and it got really, really big in the first couple weeks because I think that there was a demand for an organization where students could kind of express how they were feeling about different issues,” said Camille Coffey, also a junior at Poly, who is the union’s outreach and onboarding manager.
The student union isn’t quite the same as a labor union. Although the student union is interested in leveraging power like labor union, its bargaining power only lies in its connections with organizations like Youth as Resources, and its social media presence. While they have no power over the school board, they wish to “make space and build community for the voices of disenfranchised, marginalized, and ignored City Students,” according to their website.
The student union is currently 50 members strong across seven schools in Baltimore City. With this many students joining the union, Coffey admits that the rapid growth was a bit overwhelming.
“All of a sudden, our little Instagram group chat maxed out of people, so we had to start a more formal-like communication method,” Coffey said.
To help fulfill their mission statement, members of the Baltimore Student Union have set up multiple working groups. Each working group tackles an issue that students can get involved in.
One working group that Coffey leads tackles the issue of dress codes and uniforms in schools. While the issue of required uniforms may seem minor, their goal is to revise the dress codes so that they are more equitable and eliminate gender and body-size bias.
“The skinnier girls, like, they will literally walk around in miniskirts, and the administration won’t even bat an eye. With the bigger girls, if their skirts are a little bit above their fingertips, they get called out,” Western High School Chapter Lead Destiny Stewart said.
There’s also the issue of socioeconomics when it comes to the dress code system. While supporters of school uniforms may say that the dress code creates socioeconomic uniformity, that can only happen if schools can make uniforms affordable.
“If you’re not in uniform, you have to go in through another door, which causes us to be even more late. I find that ridiculous because not everyone can afford a Western shirt or Western hoodie,” Stewart said.
One of the group’s early success stories is the way they were able to bring attention to the election of the Associated Student Congress of Baltimore City. This group, along with the CEO Youth Leadership Advisory Council, serves as BCPSS students’ representative body and outlet to let their voices be heard. The two groups do things like oversee all student government associations and appoint a student commissioner for the school board. However, Eblaghie noted that the people aware of the election for the ASCBC were mostly students from Polytechnic and Baltimore City College.
“It’s very difficult, I think, to accomplish a lot of things when all of your students are coming from one background,” Eblaghie said.
To remedy this lack of background diversity, the student union advertised the ASCBC election on their social media to get more students from different schools involved in its decision-making process. As a result, a record number of votes were cast, and there are members of the student congress that come from schools like the Baltimore School for the Arts, The Stadium School, and Reginald F. Lewis High School.
“Just the fact that there was an on-the-ground organizing effort to bring attention to this group that was trying to get people to join up, I think played a big difference,” Eblaghie said. “We’re just trying to sort of help the student congress expand their bases.”
Baltimore City Public Schools gave a statement to Baltimore Beat regarding the student union. They said that the ASCBC and the student union serve different purposes regarding student representation, but they “celebrate and honor young people’s efforts to establish independent student-led organizations.”
The Baltimore Student Union comes at a time when working-class people are coming together to make their voices heard and respected in the workplace. Coffey believes that the rise in unionization comes from folks realizing that they’re more than their job.
“With that new societal emphasis on valuing your own needs and understanding that you’re not just someone who needs to work till burnout… you can’t just treat me like I’m not a person, because my mental health does matter,” Coffey said.
The student union has worked hard at supporting those who were at the picket line with the Starbucks union, and they developed a good relationship with the Coalition Against Policing by Hopkins, who are a collection of groups working to stop Johns Hopkins from forming a private police force.
Looking towards the future, the student union plans would like to have a chapter at every school, get the city to acknowledge that their metal detector program has led to issues from long lines to bias, and to grow their presence as a group. As a part of this, Eblaghie wrote an op-ed on the fatal shooting near Edmondson Westside High School.
A lot of the leadership are upperclassmen, so the union hopes that they can set up a system that keeps the Baltimore Student Union going once they graduate.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t realize that we students have opinions too,” according to Zoe Hong, the secretary for the student union and a junior at Poly. “The reason why we’re doing it all is just so that BCPSS students just feel represented.”