‘In Baltimore, everybody’s unionizing’: Workers weigh in on wave of labor organizing campaigns

Published on: September 05, 2022 at 6:00 am EDT

Updated on: September 07, 2022 at 9:58 am EDT

MOM’s Organic Market Rotunda in Hampden on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022.

Hoisting signs and sharing a microphone, more than two dozen people rallied outside the front steps of the Maryland Institute College of Art on Tuesday afternoon in support of an upcoming vote to unionize full-time faculty members.

One purple-haired student paused halfway up the steps to listen to a speaker, raised a fist in solidarity and shouted, “Yeah!”

Across the city, people are organizing for better wages, improved working conditions and more power in the workplace. A tech retailer, a coffee shop, an organic grocery store, art museums, libraries and community colleges have all experienced union pushes in recent months in the Baltimore area. This wave of collective bargaining has been catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing wealth gap, according to workers, labor organizers and experts.

“It’s the Gilded Age right now,” said Barbara Gruber, an adjunct faculty member who teaches life drawing classes at MICA, referring to the period in the late 19th century defined by rapid industrialization, political corruption and monopolies.

Gruber wants better pay for part-time teachers, whom she says make less than half of what a first-year, full-time faculty member at the art school makes per class. “Our whole economy has been built on the backs of cheap labor for decades and you’re paying the price now. The pandemic just brought it to a head when people realized, ‘Oh my God, we’re gonna die.’”

A recent Gallup poll showed 71% of Americans support labor unions, up from 64% before the pandemic. The height of union support was in the 1950s, when about 75% of Americans approved of unions, according to Gallup. In 2022, unions won more elections than they had in nearly two decades in the U.S., according to an analysis of National Labor Relations Board data by Bloomberg Law.

The rally at MICA came days before Labor Day, which has been celebrated in this country since the late 19th century to recognize the contributions of workers.

‘In Baltimore, everybody’s unionizing’

“In Baltimore, everybody’s unionizing,” said David Cloutier, a full-time faculty member who has taught at MICA for 15 years and who spoke at the demonstration. “I love that about Baltimore. There’s such community in the city and it’s like we’re looking around, being like, ‘It can be better.’ I’d love to see Baltimore become a really strong union town.”

In the Baltimore area, workers of at least eight organizations have organized union campaigns in recent months. They include an Apple store in Towson (the first in the country to unionize), a Starbucks at 1209 N. Charles St., a MOM’s Organic Market in Hampden, MICA, the Walters Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Baltimore County Public Library. With the enactment of new legislation allowing community college workers to collectively bargain, community colleges will likely join the list as well.

What’s happening in Baltimore is part of a larger national trend that has come to a “slow boil,” said Brian Markovitz, a partner at Joseph Greenwald & Laake who has worked in labor law for the past 20 years.

Markovitz pointed to the history of labor rights in the country. “Abysmal” working conditions in the early part of the 20th century led to workers organizing for change, he said. Although unions helped improve working conditions, people over time forgot the importance of collective bargaining and workers lost power, he said.

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In 1955, union membership represented about 35% of the American workforce. By 2021, the percentage of the workforce that belonged to unions had dropped to 10.3%, matching the record low set in 2019. The decline in union power was also fueled by harder lines taken by Republican officeholders and corporations, as some blamed unions for the United States’ failure to compete globally.

More recently, Markovitz said, “things started to get really bad again” for workers.

He pointed to several factors: companies are using technology to micromanage employees; people are expected to work irregular hours or be on call more than eight hours a day; and the growing pay gap between CEOs and their workers. Wealth inequality has also grown — the share of wealth held by the top 1% of Americans rose from 30% in 1989 to nearly 39% in 2016, while the wealth held by the bottom 90% fell from 33% to 23%.

“People are just sick of it,” Markovitz said. “People are remembering again why they need unions.”

There are important tradeoffs to consider with unionization, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank, in a phone interview Friday. “You get some good news and bad news when you get unions.”

On one hand, unions will negotiate for higher wages and improved working conditions. On the other hand, they restrict employers’ flexibility and they cost more, which can lead to fewer jobs in the union’s area and slower growth overall, he said. Products will become more expensive for consumers and it will be harder for employees to advance on the career ladder because unions are seniority-oriented and younger workers are more likely to be laid off, he added.

Holtz-Eakin said the recent uptick in union activity across the country has been enabled by President Joe Biden’s administration, which is “more pro-union than any other previous administration has ever been,” as well as a tight labor market that gives workers more power, he said.

“The combination of economics of this moment with very tight labor markets and the policy push from the White House ... has really brought the whole union movement a little bit of life in the U.S.,” Holtz-Eakin said.

President Joe Biden, a Democrat who has repeatedly vowed to be “the most pro-union president” in history, plans to participate in Labor Day parades Monday in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.

Universities and museums

Stephanie Williams, a full-time professor in MICA’s animation department, got involved with unionizing because she loves MICA and wants to make it a better and stronger school, she said.

Modern communication technologies and social media have helped people connect and spread the word about workers’ rights campaigns, Williams said. She said she sees a lot of the momentum being driven by younger generations, people like her students.

“I think a lot of them are entering the job force, seeing that things are not acceptable and wanting to change it,” the 41-year-old artist said.

A statement from the art school said MICA believes in the critical role that unions play in ensuring fair and equitable working conditions for employees in our country.

“The College’s administration and Board of Trustees support this fundamental right for MICA faculty and staff,” the statement said. “ ... MICA has a socially committed mission and vision; we strive to live up to our values in all ways.”

Workers at the Baltimore Museum of Art learned organizing strategies from colleagues at museums like the Philadelphia Museum of Art through social media. They have since worked to support each other.

“I used to think something like this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but now I can see that I could use those [organizing] skills somewhere else,” said Leila Grothe, associate curator of contemporary art at Baltimore Museum of Art. “A lot of cultural institutions are unionizing,”

As a curator, Grothe is worried about job security and transparency. “We are going through a director transition which can sometimes bring curatorial shake ups … our livelihoods shouldn’t be tied to one individual,” she said.

Keondra Prier, who serves as Mellon Initiative Project Manager at the BMA, has seen the value of making sure that its union is “wall-to-wall,” meaning that it represents all sectors and departments within the organization. Prier herself is a contract employee who was included in the union because her contract was extended. At the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Prier learned how difficult it can be to organize a union that excluded certain staff members. “It made the union this big enemy ... the security team was eventually eliminated and outsourced to a private company.”

Organizing skills have proved to be extremely necessary as cultural institutions push for unions. Prier came from the Walters Art Museum. When noticing labor issues at the Walters, Prier felt like “the most ethical thing to do was unionize.” A group representing workers at The Walters Art Museum has been exploring forming a union.

‘If they’re doing it, we can do it, too’

Natalia De Oliveira, 24, has worked at MOM’s Organic Market in Hampden for the past year-and-a-half stocking, breaking down pallets and working the register. She is on the organizing committee of the union, which won its election in a 58-8 vote on Aug. 26. Most of her fellow MOM’s workers are in their 20s to 40s, she said.

“My generation is realizing that nothing is going to change from the [corporations] so we gotta do it ourselves,” said De Oliveira, who wants higher wages, more sick time, more paid time off and better job security.

Workers at MOM’s found inspiration from the wave of unionization sweeping the country, De Oliveira said.

“We were watching all of that stuff happen. We just got momentum, we felt confident. We saw those places in Baltimore successfully unionizing. We thought, if they’re doing it, we can do it too,” she said.

MOM’s had responded to the effort by tweeting out a list of its benefits, including a minimum wage of at least $15; paid sick and bereavement leave and vacation time; a 401(k) plan; and a 30% store discount.

‘A brand new day’

On Sept. 1, community college employees in Maryland gained the right to collectively bargain as a result of the recent passage of House Bill 894.

Joan Bevelaqua, who teaches part time at Howard and Prince George’s community colleges, said she’s been fighting for the right to unionize for a decade. She began working with organizers after learning that adjunct professors at Howard County Community College would no longer be able to take a sick day without having their pay docked.

Bevelaqua said her community college colleagues have been interested in unionizing, and now the work can begin in earnest. “It’s a brand new day,” she said.

The Maryland State Education Association, the largest labor union in Maryland representing about 76,000 educators, is working on union campaigns at Howard and Anne Arundel community colleges, said Cheryl Bost, president of the association.

Bost believes unions will help address the worker shortages that schools and other sectors are facing.

“As we’re coming out of the pandemic and seeing businesses looking to attract employees, we’re seeing these employees want to have a say in their jobs, in their pay and not being mistreated,” Bost said.

Library workers organize ahead of election

Enoch Pratt Free Library workers are gearing up for a union election, said Ellie McCrow, an express cataloguer who has worked at the central branch for eight years. The 28-year-old Baltimore resident said she wants to work in an environment that’s free from discrimination and values transparency and fairness.

“It boils down to wanting to be treated with respect and having a voice in decisions that affect us,” McCrow said.

McCrow and other organizers are meeting with other workers and trying to allay the concerns of those who fear retaliation.

“The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated so many injustices in this country. People are just tired. People are ready to fight for that power. It’s really inspiring and I’m just happy to be a small part of that,” she said.

There’s a sense of solidarity between the workers unionizing across Baltimore’s different sectors, added Antonette Quintilian, who serves on the organizing committee with McCrow.

“Being part of the bigger movement, it feels great,” Quintilian said.

In an emailed statement, an Enoch Pratt Free Library spokeswoman said the public library system respects their employees’ right to select union representation and is currently working with employee representatives and legal counsel to work through the process.

Holding a union election is just one step in a what can be a long, complicated and sometimes contentious road to the negotiating table. One organizer whom The Banner spoke with shared concerns that workers might face retaliation. Some organizations have publicly stated they support their workers’ rights to unionize; others have stayed silent on the issue or provided muted public responses.

Richard Brown, president of Teamsters Local 570, which represents MOM’s employees as well as 3,600 workers in Baltimore and surrounding areas, has been a labor leader since 1993.

“Unionizing isn’t about companies and employees fighting. It’s about keeping the dialogue open ... and putting the things you want and need into a binding contract,” he said. “ ... It’s going to be quite interesting to see how this moves forward.”

Correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the status of labor efforts at The Walters Art Museum. A union representing museum workers has so far not been able to hold a unionization vote.

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