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Workers at the Baltimore Museum of Art voted to form a union. The Walters may be next.

Employees at the Baltimore Museum of Art voted Thursday to form a union by a margin of nearly three to one, reflecting a nationwide resurgence in the labor movement in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision to organize with Council 67 of the American Federation of State, Local and Municipal Employees was made nine months after BMA staff members went public with a plan to form a union at the 108-year-old cultural institution. Nearly 85% of the museum’s 140 employees cast ballots. The final vote was 89 to 29.

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The decision by BMA staff members comes as workers at such area cultural organizations as the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Baltimore County Public Library and The Walters Art Museum have all begun organizing.

“I’m so excited to see the changes that this new structure will bring to our museum,” Associate BMA Curator Leila Grothe said in a news release.

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“We now have a voice in making a better workplace and a better life for each other. We’re eager to see the ways in which this benefits our entire organization from the bottom up.”

Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott applauded the outcome of the vote.

“Coming from a union household, I know the power and agency that union membership affords workers,” Scott said in the news release. “I am happy that more residents will be able to reap those benefits.”

Museum officials pledged to work with the new union.

“We respect the outcome of the election and the decision of our staff to unionize,” BMA interim directors Christine Dietz and Asma Naeem wrote in a statement. “We will now work to determine next steps to begin the collective bargaining process and what we hope will be productive and collaborative negotiations.”

Experts say that workers nationwide began clamoring to have a greater voice in determining their wages and working conditions after the pandemic disrupted virtually every aspect of the workplace for nearly two years.

In April, Starbucks baristas in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood became the first of the coffee chain’s Maryland employees to organize. In May, staff members of the Maryland Institute College of Art voted to unionize weeks before the college announced that it was laying off nearly 10% of its staff. And in June, President Joe Biden said he was “proud” of workers at Towson’s Apple Store after they became the first of the tech giant’s U.S. employees to form a union.

Some observers think that employers are beginning to push back against the unionizing ferment.

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After Starbucks announced recently that the chain will ax 16 stores nationwide including two that had recently unionized, employees filed suit in federal court claiming the closures are a form of union-busting. The retail giant said the stores are being shuttered for safety reasons.

The unionization process at the BMA proceeded relatively smoothly, in part because workers at that institution were able to circumvent a legal roadblock that has hampered their counterparts at the Walters, an impasse that has less to do with whether the workers have the right to unionize than with the size of the bargaining unit they will be allowed to form.

Workers at both museums pushed to unionize as government employees because municipal staffers have the option of forming one “wall to wall” union that includes the entire staff.

In contrast, unions consisting of private sector employees are governed by the National Labor Relations Board, and a provision of the law dating back to 1947 prohibits security guards for private companies from being included in the same union as other employees.

Security guards who work for private companies still have a legal right to unionize. But at the Walters, the consequence of any election run by the NLRB would be two smaller unions instead of one larger and presumably more powerful union.

“If Walters staff vote to create a union, we will move expediently and in good faith to bargain with that union,” museum director Julia Marciari-Alexander wrote in a letter dated Sept. 2021 and posted on the museum’s website.

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Contradictory as it might appear, staffers at the BMA and Pratt — but not the Walters — are classified as “special employees” of the mayor and City Council under the Baltimore City Code. As a result, they have collective bargaining rights with AFSCME and can form that wall-to-wall union.

But the city code would have to be amended before workers at the Walters could enjoy the same privilege, a step officials say they can’t take.

In October, City Solicitor Hilary Ruley told members of the City Council that the Walters is not an governmental agency as its workers claim, but a private company and is therefore under the jurisdiction of the NLRB.

She said that the Walters has the option of bringing in an outside arbitrator to run an election, and the city would be willing to certify the election results. But she said city officials would be unable to provide further oversight or assistance in the event of future labor disputes.

Since then, negotiations appear to have stalled, though the mayor recently offered to help broker an agreement in the 15-month stalemate.

“My administration stands with the employees of the Walters and its leadership in wanting a quick resolution to the unionization question,” Scott wrote in a letter to Walters management dated June 21.

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“I sincerely hope that this Board will work with my administration on this matter.”


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