Workers attempting to form a union at the Walters Art Museum filed a lawsuit this week against trustees and other leaders in an effort to have the museum declared a public entity subject to the Maryland Public Information Act — a move that could force the disclosure of certain records the employees say are critical for unionization.
Walters Workers United and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) are seeking emails, board minutes, contracts, tax filings and financial statements, as well as other documents about the employees’ efforts to unionize, according to the seven-page lawsuit filed Monday in Baltimore Circuit Court.
The suit claims Julia Marciari-Alexander, executive director and CEO of the Walters, has denied multiple information requests from employees by stating that the museum is not subject to the Maryland Public Information Act. The law grants broad access to state, county and municipal agency records, but usually does not apply to private entities.
Marciari-Alexander did not respond to a request for an interview. A spokeswoman for the Walters said Tuesday: “We have been made aware of a potential legal action and will engage in the legal process as appropriate.”
In the filing, the workers question the status of the Walters as a private institution, noting the museum shares many characteristics of governmental enterprises. The lawsuit points to the mayor and City Council’s oversight of the museum board, as well as the city’s ownership of the Walters buildings, along with financing the institution has received through state bonds and public grants.
“The Walters Art Museum is a public art museum owned by the City of Baltimore. The endowment that funds it is received by the Walters on behalf of the Mayor and the City Council of Baltimore,” the lawsuit states.
Garrett Stralnic, who works in security at the Walters, said the lawsuit is about being able to resolve issues that have become roadblocks to the process of creating a union.
“Walters’ management is using their claim of being a private entity to avoid being accountable to workers and blocking us from an inclusive union election,” said Stralnic.
The Walters leadership previously has said it supports employees’ efforts to organize. It says the workers can vote to form a union through the National Labor Relations Board, which governs bargaining units at private companies, while the employees demand the right to unionize as government workers through the AFSCME.
Because of a decades-old provision, the NLRB does not allow security guards employed by private companies to unionize alongside their co-workers. Instead, a separate bargaining unit must be formed for the guards, who make up about a third of the employees at the museum, according to the union. The result would be essentially two smaller unions instead of a larger bargaining unit that could presumably carry more weight.
Staff at the Baltimore Museum of Art voted in July to unionize, with some 85% of employees casting ballots. The efforts at the BMA were facilitated by leadership, who agreed to negotiate with the workers and to support a vote to organize with AFSCME.
The Walters’ employees said they are looking for the same opportunity, but their museum leadership has yet to agree to meet with them, despite it being more than a year since their efforts to unionize began.
“Over the past 16 months, museum leadership and the board has steadfastly refused to speak with us on any matter relating to labor relations,” said Greg Bailey, who works in conservation, technical research and collections at the Walters. “A Freedom of Information Act request ensures the transparency and accountability we so sorely need in this matter.”
In a recent Labor Day message posted on the Walters website, the museum reiterated its support for a union, but said organizers were dragging their feet.
“On the issue of union organizing, WWU and AFSCME have still resisted taking the necessary steps within their control in order to proceed to a union vote,” the museum wrote in a director’s message that was unsigned.
The message said Walters Workers United and the AFSCME “have taken no substantive action to advance this process. And while we respect their right to make their position known via social media, this is in no way the same thing as meaningful, concrete, and proactive steps that would lead to a vote on unionization.”
Stralnic said the Walters was “misconstruing our efforts” and pushed back against the criticism in the museum’s message to the public.
“We’ve been trying for, like, a year and a half to have a meeting and to have open communication,” he said. “The director has refused to meet with us. We have asked in many ways and many times.”
Attorneys for the city, which is not part of the lawsuit, have as recently as last year said that the Walters is not a governmental agency.
Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott has said he supports the workers’ efforts to form a union. In June, he wrote a letter to Walters management outlining his stance and offering to mediate what has turned into a nearly 16-month impasse between the workers and the museum.
The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Stralnic said he hopes the lawsuit will allow employees to finally move forward with creating a bargaining unit. He said the issue is costing the Walters in terms of hiring and worker loyalty.
“We’re losing a lot of people to other cultural institutions,” he said. “We feel pretty confident in our stance that they’re a public institution, and we have documents to prove it.”