Workers at the Walters Art Museum announced their plans to unionize as part of an effort called Walters Workers United. The group cited issues with health and safety of employees, transparency, pay equity, and “top-down decision-making” at the museum. Image courtesy of Walters Workers United.
Workers at the Walters Art Museum announced their plans to unionize as part of an effort called Walters Workers United. The group cited issues with health and safety of employees, transparency, pay equity, and “top-down decision-making” at the museum. Image courtesy of Walters Workers United.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on May 4 with a statement from the Walters Art Museum, as well as additional information from Walters Workers United.

Workers at the Walters Art Museum have announced an effort to form a union, saying they want to improve the health and safety of employees, increase transparency and pay equity, and address what they call “top-down decision making” by museum management.

Walters Workers United said in a statement on Monday that they intend to join American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 67, becoming part of Cultural Workers United.

“We are forming our union to care for our most valuable assets — the people who work here and the communities we serve. In doing so, we will support each other and further the stated goal of the institution to be a transformative force in the Baltimore region and the larger museum field,” Walters Workers United wrote in their mission statement on their website.

The group behind the unionization effort said they need:

  • “A workplace that values the health and safety of all workers, including our physical and mental wellbeing.”
  • “Transparent communication and collaborative decision-making to create a culture of inclusion, trust, equity, and accountability.”
  • “Pay equity, benefits for all workers (including part-time), professional development, advancement opportunities, and job security to build and support a dynamic team.”

Julia Marciari-Alexander, the executive director and CEO of the Walters Art Museum, on Tuesday said the museum is committed to cooperating with the employees involved in the unionization effort in a “non-adversarial process.”

“We respect and value our employees, as evidenced by our work to ensure continued employment throughout the pandemic closure, to raise hourly wages and provide bonus pay, and to publicly commit to clear goals for our DEAI work–and therefore also respect the rights of our employees to consider unionizing,” Marciari-Alexander said in a statement. “While a union will change the way we work, we are committed to a cooperative and non-adversarial process, and I am encouraging the whole Walters team to learn about the impact so that everyone can make educated decisions about what is best for themselves and the museum.”

Union organizers are seeking signatures on union cards, and are requesting that museum managers voluntarily recognize the bargaining unit. If not, a secret election would be held.

A spokesperson for the Walters Art Museum told Baltimore Fishbowl they had no comment on whether museum management would voluntarily recognize the union or whether the group would need to hold an election.

Gregory Bailey, senior objects conservator at the Walters Art Museum and a member of the Walters Workers United organizing committee, said the group hopes that museum management will voluntarily recognize them as a union.

“We are hoping that by demonstrating really broad support from staff, the wisest way forward would be for the museum to respectfully acknowledge the union,” he said. “This is really a positive step for everyone to really work together and to create lasting change within the museum field and for our community in greater Baltimore as well.”

If the museum does not voluntarily recognize the union, the National Labor Relations Board would schedule a vote. Walters Workers United would need a simple majority — 50% plus one — of voting employees to cast a ballot in favor of forming a union.

“We certainly expect the support would be much stronger,” Bailey said.

There are about 100 Walters employees who would be eligible to be part of a union, Bailey said.

Once formed, the bargaining unit would negotiate on a contract which would include salary, benefits and other issues. Dues would be $19 bi-weekly for full-time employees, and $14 for part-time workers.

Bailey said a group of employees who had a “similar interest in creating and sustaining change at the Walters” began coalescing in November 2020.

After looking at various union structures, a 19-member organizing committee, with representatives from across museum departments, voted in January 2021 to affiliate with AFSCME.

Over the past several months, Walters Workers United has spoken with coworkers outside of museum channels to get a better sense of what issues are important to them, Bailey said.

Among the issues of important to Walters Workers United, health and safety of employees has been a major priority.

The Walters Art Museum reopened its doors in March after a nearly four-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, at which point the museum required staff and visitors to wear face coverings, maintain social distancing, and follow other public health protocols.

Bailey said those protocols have been “relatively effective so far.”

But he said the decisions behind implementing those protocols “did not include as much representation from staff, particularly frontline staff who are on museum grounds everyday, as we would have wanted.”

He added that employees want to have more of a voice at the decision-making table in general.

Another concern during the pandemic has been job security.

“In this very precarious year that we’ve been in, it has been really anxiety-inducing to know that we are all at-will employees, meaning that any point we could face layoffs or furloughs or reductions in benefits with no input from staff necessarily,” Bailey said. “Having some security in terms of our employment would be a huge, huge relief for many folks.”

Earlier this year, the museum raised the pay for all full-time employees to at least $15 per hour, and pay for all part-time employees to at least $13 per hour.

Bailey said that has also been a “very welcome development,” but he said there continues to be a disparity between full-time and part-time staff that needs to rectified.

“We would really like to see equal pay for equal work, and also access to important benefits like healthcare and retirement funds, which again there’s a disparity between full-time and part-time staff,” he said.

Bailey added that the museum needs to build and sustain career advancement opportunities.

“Many folks who we have spoken to have given their working lives to the museum and really do believe in the institution, but have been at the same pay level and same job description for many years and in some cases decades,” he said.

Over the past year, the museum — like the much of society at large — has taken a closer look at systematic racism and oppression within and outside of its walls, Bailey said.

In March, the museum addressed its own history, including how the institution’s father-and-son founders, William and Henry Walters, supported the Confederacy.

A newly written historical account of the museum also addresses the “biased and Eurocentric view” that informed the Walters’ collecting of art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The museum at the time announced new strategic planning goals intended to enhance the institution’s diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion.

Bailey said museum management and staff are “in agreement” on those goals and that Walters Workers United would like to see those discussions and actions continue.

Bailey said Walters Workers United purposefully chose Friday, the eve of International Workers Day on Saturday, to announce employees’ plans to unionize. He said the museum has a “global presence,” and that its employees’ unionization effort is another thread in that international tapestry.

“The Walters is a really influential museum in many ways,” Bailey said. “I think in Baltimore we think of it as a hometown institution, but it has a truly global reputation.”

The Walters opened as a public institution in November 1934, and has been free to the public since October 2006. The museum also publishes a journal of scholarly work, and has trained museum professionals who have gone on to work around the world, Bailey said.

The unionization effort at the Walters comes after similar movements recently in the museum industry, including the creation of the Philadelphia Art Museum Union and Walker Worker Union at the Walker Art Center in Minnesota.

Disclosure: Baltimore Fishbowl founder and publisher Susan Dunn is a member of the Walters Art Museum’s Board of Trustees.

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Marcus Dieterle

Marcus Dieterle is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He returned to Baltimore in 2020 after working as the deputy editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper in Elkton, Md. He can be reached at marcus@baltimorefishbowl.com...