After two years of legal, political and inter-institutional issues, employees at the Walters Art Museum voted Thursday night to form a union. The vote, which went 60-5 in favor of unionizing, means contract negotiations can now begin.

The bargaining unit includes curators, conservators, security guards, retail workers, marketers and members of various other departments. Nearly 80 employees took part in the vote, according to the union.

“I continue to be inspired by my colleagues’ commitment to each other and to this institution,” said Greg Bailey, a senior objects conservator. “With the recognition of our union, together we can build a more inclusive future in which all workers are safer, more secure, and supported in the work they do.”

It has been a lengthy road for the bargaining unit team at Walters Workers United — one full of bureaucratic speed bumps. Employees have long asserted that because the Walters was established when Henry Walters gifted a large art collection to the city in 1933 “for the benefit of the public,” the institution was a quasi-government entity and therefore needed legislation to form a union. Museum management originally argued otherwise, and said that such a bill would be an unconstitutional taking of the museum’s works.

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Management said they would have no issue with the union if it went through the National Labor Relations Board — a process only for private entities that would require the security staff to join a separate, smaller union. But Walters Workers United fought for voluntary recognition so the museum could have a “wall-to-wall” union, meaning every staff member is represented by the same body, whether a curator or a guard.

Maryland lawmakers agreed that the Walters was a part of the government: During this year’s general assembly, Walters Workers United introduced legislation with Del. Robbyn Lewis and Sen. Jill P. Carter on behalf of Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott that would allow the museum workers to form their unit. Despite passing in the House and Senate, the bill was withdrawn in March after Walters administrators voluntarily recognized the bargaining unit.

With a successful vote, the Walters Workers United union joins the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). AFSCME represents universities around the state as well as Maryland municipal employees. Throughout the yearslong process, AFSCME has assisted Walters workers in getting union cards and bringing forth political bills. As union members, employees will have the support of the national AFSCME to get a fair contract.

“After more than two years of organizing, we are excited to see Walters Art Museum workers win their union election,” said Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland Council 3. “Today’s victory brings Walters Workers United closer towards a workplace where their talent and contributions are valued and their input and voices are respected and heard.”

In previous conversations with reporters, Walter Workers United has said they are conducting a survey to identify top contract priorities. Fair pay and working conditions are typically major considerations in union agreements.

Imani is an Arts and Culture writer with a background in libraries. She loves to read, hike and brag about her friends.

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