Maryland lawmakers moved forward a bill that would enable workers at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum to form a union, the latest step in an ongoing organizing effort at the museum.
“It’s the right step forward to save the Walters and help it flourish,” Baltimore Sen. Jill P. Carter said Friday, after her fellow senators agreed to advance legislation allowing workers to unionize. Baltimore’s members of the House of Delegates previously voted to support a slightly different version of the same bill.
Museum workers have been trying to form a union for two years, but the effort ran into thorny legal and political issues.
In Maryland, workers at government agencies often need to have a state law approved in order to begin the process of forming a union.
In the case of the Walters, the workers and the union they are working with, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, argue that the museum is a quasi-government entity. That’s because the museum was formed when Henry Walters bequeathed his family’s art collection to the city of Baltimore “for the benefit of the public.”
The museum is overseen by a board of trustees that was established by the Maryland General Assembly. The city government helps fund employee benefits at the museum, where workers can participate in the city’s health insurance. Some workers are eligible to participate in the city’s pension plan.
Museum management, however, has argued that the museum does not fall under the requirement that a law needs to be passed to allow workers to organize. They further claimed during a hearing that the bill, if passed, would constitute an illegal “taking” of the museum’s property by the government.
Officials from the Walters did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Baltimore’s state senators agreed on Friday morning to remove one line out of the bill that declares that: “The Museum is a unit and instrumentality of the State and the City.” After making that change, all five senators representing the city voted in favor.
“The unanimous vote in the Baltimore City Senate Delegation is a step forward for workers at the Walters as they build momentum towards finally gaining a voice on the job after two years of struggle,” said Stuart Katzenberg with AFSCME.
The next step is for the legislation to be considered by General Assembly committees, followed by the full House of Delegates and full Senate. Both sides would have to agree to the exact same language.
In cases like this, where a bill has a limited effect on one institution in Baltimore City, lawmakers from the rest of the state typically support the wishes of the local lawmakers. That practice is called “local courtesy” and is generally observed — but not required — in the General Assembly.
“This bill lays the foundation moving forward for workers rights,” said Carter, who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill. “Without the workers, there’s no Walters.”
The House of Delegates version of the bill is sponsored by Del. Robbyn Lewis.
The legislation is supported by Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott, a Democrat who previously told reporters the bill would ensure museum workers “have a clear and fair path to achieve recognition of their union.”