In a newsletter sent out last month by the Walters Art Museum, Executive Director Julia Marciari-Alexander comes across as more than a little disingenuous. She framed her missive within the context of Labor Day — a federal holiday established over a century ago by the American labor movement — presumably to soften the blow of her message. And that was to blame Walters Workers United (WWU), the current union organizing effort at the museum, for failing to take “the necessary steps within their control in order to proceed to a union vote.”
If ever there was an example of gaslighting in the form of an official memorandum, this is it. It’s absurd. WWU has actively sought to have an open and fair election for over a year. The problem is not with WWU. The problem lies with the Walters Art Museum leadership. I speak from experience having been closely involved with forming a union at the Baltimore Museum of Art in conjunction with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) — the same trade union that is working with WWU. Although the BMA Union started its organizing efforts a few months after WWU, it just won its election, 89-to-29, in early July. If we can do it, so can our colleagues at the Walters.
Museum leaders at the BMA attempted the same union-busting tactic as the Walters by insisting on having the election be overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB has historically required security departments of a given workplace to be separate from the larger union. WWU rightly wants a “wall-to-wall” union, meaning no separation of departments. Not only does a wall-to-wall union make more sense in terms of the very spirit of unionizing — what sort of “union” is fragmented? — it also makes it harder for leadership to “divide and conquer” (so to speak.) In a wall-to-wall unit, each department would have the opportunity to work with management to create a better working environment for all. It was a slog, but the BMA Union was persistent, and eventually persuaded museum leadership to agree to an election overseen by an outside arbiter. Marciari-Alexander and the Walters Museum board of trustees can easily make the same decision. Thus far, they have chosen not to.
My career as a museum professional started more than two decades ago when I began guarding at Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the union was not a wall-to-wall unit. It was strangely gratifying (at times) being part of the scrappiest little union at Harvard. It felt like David versus Goliath during confrontations with university lawyers, and I’ve always enjoyed rooting for the underdog. That said, it was a constant uphill battle negotiating a new contract or getting management to work fairly with us on disciplinary issues. We would have been stronger being part of one unit. It makes no sense for cultural institutions to adhere to the outdated rule created long ago by the conservative NLRB that security must be separate from the larger union. The whole point of collectivization is for the entire staff to work together toward a common goal. Like the many works of art in its galleries, the Walters Art Museum needs to have a wall-to-wall labor union. The only thing stopping this now is museum leadership standing in the way.
To move forward, all they would have to do is agree to meet with WWU members to begin an open dialogue about an election conducted by a third party. However, WWU is now suing the Walters for refusing to comply with a Public Information Act request to hand over union-related communications. Walters leaders say the museum is a private entity and not subject to the Maryland Public Information Act. This stonewalling strategy, coming on the heels of the director’s anti-union screed disguised as a public newsletter, complicates things for the Walters and their image. The newsletter is what millennials might call “cringey.” More to the point, it’s contradictory. You can’t have it both ways: invoking a holiday meant to celebrate the nation’s workers while, in the next breath, chastising your own. If Marciari-Alexander wanted to properly honor her staff, she would have given them the chance to vote in an election long ago.
— Dereck Stafford Mangus, Baltimore
The writer is a security guard at the Baltimore Museum of Art and a graduate of the Critical Studies program at the Maryland Institute College of Art.