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Baltimore Circuit Court hears arguments in lawsuit by Walters Museum employees who contend they work for city government

A 19-month dispute about whether employees of the Walters Art Museum will be represented by the union of their choice appears to be heading toward a resolution.

During a Wednesday morning hearing in Baltimore Circuit Court, Judge John S. Nugent heard — but did not immediately rule on — arguments from attorneys representing workers and museum officials asking him to determine whether the 88-year-old museum is a branch of city government or a private corporation.

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At the conclusion of the hearing, Nugent said he would issue a written ruling, but did not provide an estimated time frame or clues as to how he was leaning, peppering the plaintiffs and defendants with equally pointed questions.

At the core of the case is a complicated legal issue that lacks an apparent, clear-cut answer:

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Both sides agree that the city owns 22,000 of the artworks in the collection that were the bequest of museum founder Henry Walters. The museum cannot sell those paintings and sculptures without first receiving permission from city officials. But the museum’s board owns an additional 14,000 artworks acquired after the founder’s death, which trustees can dispose of whenever they please.

Likewise, the employees and administrators agree, the city owns three of the five buildings that constitute the museum’s footprint. But the board owns the remaining two — and those two account for most of the Walters’ square footage.

Attorney Marta D. Harting, who represents the museum’s administrators and trustees, argued that the city exercises minimal control over the Walters’ daily operations.

Less than a quarter of the funding required to operate the Walters comes from government grants, she said. Just two of the 39 members of the board of trustees are appointed by the city.

“The city has never exercised any degree of control over the Walters’ bylaws or over its operations,” Harting said.

Attorney David Maher, who represents the workers, said that if city officials oversee museum operations with a light hand, they do so by choice.

“The Walters does not actually operate with the level of independence that it claims,” Maher said. “Even the fact that it has independence has been given to it discretionarily by ... Baltimore City and the State of Maryland. That independence could be taken away at any time.”

Nugent has three options, and two of them could mean that the court case will be resolved relatively quickly:

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He could grant the Walters employees’ motion for a summary judgment and rule that the museum is part of city government, which would set in motion procedures for the workers to be represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, as they would prefer. This option would allow all of the museum’s workers to belong to the same union.

Nugent could also issue a summary judgment concluding that the Walters is a private corporation, as museum officials maintain. Director Julia Marciari-Alexander has said that trustees do not oppose employees’ plans to unionize. But administrators think the proper agency to conduct the balloting is the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees union elections for most private-sector businesses.

If employees vote to organize under the NLRB, an obscure provision of federal law would require the formation of two smaller (and presumably less powerful) unions — one for the security guards, and one for all other employees.

If Nugent concludes that a summary judgment is appropriate, he is likely to come to that determination in several weeks or at most, months.

However, Nugent also could decide that neither the museum nor its employees have presented arguments compelling enough to forgo the investigative process of discovery. If he schedules the case for trial, it could take a year or longer for a verdict to be reached.


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