The Walters Art Museum has agreed to consider a type of union election that would allow its employees to be represented by the labor organization of their choice — a development that could end the nearly two-year impasse between workers and management.
After director Julia Marciari-Alexander sent an email to employees saying that she was open to an election conducted by an independent third party, members of the employee group Walters Workers United delivered a written election proposal to her on Friday. The election would determine whether staffers will organize under the auspices of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) — the labor union the employee group strongly prefers.
Both sides say there’s reason to hope that the standoff will soon be resolved.
“I won’t soon forget the feeling of getting to hand-deliver the agreement with my co-workers,” gallery officer Garrett Stralnic wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun, “because it means the possibility of an election may finally be in our near future.”
Walters administrators agreed the recent events represent progress.
“Now that some employees have made a proposal,” Connie McAllister, the museum’s director of marketing and communications wrote in an email, “we consider this a potential breakthrough and are prepared to negotiate with them.”
A commitment to consider an election agreement isn’t the same thing as actually scheduling a vote. But it represents the first steps forward in a stalemate in which both sides have been firmly entrenched.
The dispute was never about whether the Walters employees would be allowed to organize. Marciari-Alexander has said from the beginning that she supports the workers’ right to engage in collective bargaining if a majority of them vote to do so.
“There are no obstacles to the museum’s employees forming a union,” she told members of the House Appropriations Committee in Annapolis on Jan. 24, where legislation has been introduced to allow the employees to unionize.
The only question has been which union will represent them.
The workers have long sought to organize as public sector employees represented by AFSCME because that would allow them to form one union of about 85 staff members.
In the past, Walters’ administrators have contended that any election must be conducted by the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees only private sector workers. Under a quirk in federal law, the NLRB would require Walters’ employees to form two unions: one for security guards, and one for everyone else.
“There is no question that a fair and formal NLRB-managed vote is crucial. Indeed, it is the only mechanism to ensure that each member of our staff is properly heard on the question of whether to have a union,” Marciari-Alexander wrote in a Sept. 3, 2021 message posted on the Walters’ website.
But McAllister wrote that Marciari-Alexander’s position shifted after writing that post.
“For the last year, Julia has consistently said to staff that there are multiple pathways available to them,” McAllister wrote, “and that the point was that the employees who wanted a union needed to take some action themselves to advance the process.”
But if Marciari-Alexander intended to signal to employees that she was open to a third-party election and representation by AFSCME, that message never arrived. For all of last year, no resolution appeared in sight.
“It was heartening to finally deliver our proposed election agreement to our director,” Will Hayes, an assistant registrar and a members of Walters Workers United, wrote in an email to the Sun. “For so long, we’ve basically been told that it wasn’t an option.”
But in just the past month employees celebrated two big successes: they won a victory in court, and two Democratic politicians from Baltimore sponsored bills in the state legislature to establish collective bargaining rights for Walters employees.
On Jan. 11, Maryland Circuit Court Judge John S. Nugent granted the employees a summary judgment in a lawsuit they had filed In September. He ruled that the museum should be considered a public agency for the purposes of the state’s Public Information Act, and that the Walters is required to make its documents available for inspection.
Though the Walters has appealed the ruling, Nugent’s opinion cleared a pathway for employees to pursue their goal in the political arena.
If the Walters is a public agency, as the judge has determined, its employees must also be public employees, and the state legislature has the power to give public employees the right to unionize. (Private sector employees are covered under the National Labor Relations Act.)
A hearing on a bill sponsored by Del. Robbyn Lewis was held Jan. 24 before the House Appropriations Committee, and a hearing on a bill sponsored by Sen. Jill P. Carter is scheduled to be held before the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 16.
As concerning as the public dispute between museum administrators and staff has been, a determination that the Walters is a public agency has implications that alarmed museum officials even more.
During the Jan. 24 hearing in Annapolis, Parker Thoeni, an attorney for the museum, said that the proposed collective bargaining legislation is worded so vaguely that it amounts to an “unconstitutional taking” — a fancy phrase meaning “theft.”
He objected to the portion of the bill declaring that the Walters is a “unit or instrumentality of government,” saying that “a number of different laws interpret that terminology to mean different things.”
“We have a vagueness issue that opens the door to the interpretation that this bill is intended to constitute a takeover of not only the city property but also the privately-owned assets of the Walters Art Museum.”
Both sides agree that of the 36,000 artworks in the museum’s collection, about 22,000 are owned by the city because they are the bequest of Henry Walters, while the remaining 14,000 were purchased after the founder’s death and are owned by the board of trustees. Three of the five buildings on which the museum is located belong to the city; the remaining two, which comprise more than 50% of the museum’s footprint, are property of the trustees.
In addition to the two buildings and 14,000 artworks, Thoeni said the museum’s privately-owned assets also include “a large amount of endowment funds.”
Walters board chairman Guy Flynn warned legislators that if they don’t tread carefully, the state could get saddled with running the second largest art museum in Maryland.
“This bill doesn’t discuss how the city and state plan to fund the museum,” Flynn said, “If by virtue of this bill the Walters ever were to become an instrumentality of government and thereby could no longer accept private donations.”
But lawmakers seemed undeterred by the potential perils. While members of the committee peppered both Walters employees and administrators with questions, the most barbed comments seemed reserved for museum officials.
During the hearing, Flynn predicted that contributions to the Walters would dry up if the bill were passed.
“Several major donors of art or money have told me they are pausing and revisiting their planned gifts because of the uncertainty created by the mere introduction of this bill,” Flynn said. “We could expect that a lot more of this would happen were this bill to become law.”
Del. Kirill Reznik, a Democrat from Montgomery County, asked Flynn to identify the museum benefactors who are considering withholding planned gifts — information Flynn declined to provide.
“I’d love to know the names of the people who have pulled their donations because employees want to unionize,” Reznik said. " I’d love to figure out who these ‘philanthropists’ are.”