Walters Art Museum staffers are one step closer to forming a union

Published 2/3/2023 5:51 p.m. EST, Updated 2/3/2023 6:42 p.m. EST

The Walters Art Museum.

Staff members of the Walters Art Museum have taken another step towards establishing a union at the institution.

Walters Workers United, which represents the workers’ collective bargaining unit, tweeted that the Baltimore City delegation on Friday “voted unanimously to support our #collectivebargainingbill, #HB116, as a Baltimore City House Delegation bill!” The move followed legislation introduced in the House and Senate by Del. Robbyn Lewis and Sen. Jill P. Carter, on behalf of Mayor Brandon M. Scott, that would allow for a process to have their union recognized, and if it’s successful, require Walters leadership to bargain with it in good faith.

The Walters has said in public statements over the last two years that there is no impediment to employees forming a union as long as they go through “proper channels.” At a Jan. 24 hearing in front of the General Assembly, Walters Executive Director Julia Marciari-Alexander repeated that there “are no obstacles to the museum’s employees forming a union” and said employees need to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board.

The National Labor Relations Board would require security workers to create a union unique to them, separate from the rest of the staff, but Walters Workers United, which has a supermajority of employees who are willing to join the union, is interested in a wall-to-wall option, meaning every staff member is represented by the same body.

“We have been set in our belief that a wall-to-wall union is the way to a more inclusive and just workplace,” Walters senior objects conservator Gregory Bailey told The Baltimore Banner.

In Maryland, public institutions must go through a legislative process for a union to be recognized; Lewis noted at the January hearing that the Baltimore County Public Libraries had to undergo this process a few years ago, as did the Baltimore City Police Department in the 1960s. The National Labor Relations Board is only for wholly private institutions.

“When I hear management refer us to the NLRB, I just hear that they don’t want to include security staff, and that’s frustrating,” said security officer Lex Reehill.

Employment counsel for the Walters Art Museum, Parker E. Thoeni of Shawe and Rosenthal LLP, argued at the hearing that the General Assembly has no jurisdiction at the Walters because they believe that the legislation, if passed, would be an unconstitutional taking of the museum’s property. (About two-thirds of the museum’s collection is already subject to city oversight because it was donated to Baltimore by Henry Walters when he died; the rest of the collection is controlled by trustees.)

But American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a trade union working on behalf of the museum employees, said the General Assembly has to approve the legislation because AFSCME believes the Walters is partially an instrument of the city and state based on a November 2022 summary judgement won by Walters Workers United. The judgment required the Walters to abide by the Maryland Public Information Act and produce emails that included tax documents and contracts related to union or collective bargaining activities, and referred to Baltimore City Code Article 18, which states that the Walters Art Museum and its property must be used to benefit the public.

Marciari-Alexander said in a statement Thursday to The Banner that the Board of Trustees has a responsibility to rebut any claims that the museum is a “unit or instrumentality of the government,” as the judgement found, because it “would be detrimental to the existence of the Walters Art Museum.”

However, after the January hearing, Marciari-Alexander reached out by email to workers and said she would be willing to recognize the union if there is a third-party certified election. On Thursday morning, workers delivered an election agreement to Marciari-Alexander by email and in person. Conservator Bailey was “astonished” by the change in tune.

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“For years, they’ve been consistent that they would not accept any process that didn’t involve the National Labor Relations Board, but now I’m hopeful that we have multiple avenues toward recognition,” Bailey said.

During Friday morning’s meeting in front of Baltimore City delegates, Lewis said HB116 “is designed to give working people the ability to have a voice over their working conditions, and I think this is something we can all get on board with.”

Karen French, senior conservator of paintings at the museum, reiterated the workers’ goals to the delegates: “The best way for us to move forward is with a single union representing all Walters employees.”

This story has been updated to reflect the correct process of what would happen if the legislation went into effect.