© 2023 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Walters Museum Workers Rally For Union Recognition

Workers marching in front of the Walters Art Museum Thursday. Credit: Sarah Y. Kim/WYPR
Workers marching in front of the Walters Art Museum Thursday. Credit: Sarah Y. Kim/WYPR

More than 50 people rallied in front of the Walters Art Museum Thursday to demand the management recognize AFSCME as the employees’ union.

“Who has the power? We have the power. What kind of power? Union power!” chanted museum workers.

They were joined by AFSCME members, state Sen. Cory McCray and City Councilman Ryan Dorsey.

Elizabeth Norman, who works in visitor experience for the museum, says she and nearly 100 co-workers have been trying to unionize for months.

They want museum officials to voluntarily recognize the union as their representative.

“The workers at the Walters right now are overworked, understaffed, and we are ready for a change,” Norman said.

Senior objects conservator Greg Bailey said a voluntarily recognized union would help make the museum a more inclusive and transparent institution.

“To date, the museum administration has refused to recognize our union, despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of eligible members, eligible workers have already signed their union cards,” Bailey said.

A spokesperson for the museum told WYPR that it supports employees’ “right to consider forming a union.”

The museum’s executive director Julia Marciari-Alexander published a similar statement in June, but said she would not voluntarily recognize one. Marciari-Alexander argued that voluntary recognition would revoke the right of individual employees to vote whether they wanted the union to represent them.

But workers like gallery officer Garret Stralnic said the museum has not guaranteed them a fair and inclusive election process.

“The museum wants to split us up by telling us who to have our election with,” Stralnic said. “But we have been working to not be divided, and there's a reason we call ourselves Walters Workers United.”

According to an AFSCME press statement, around 10% of the 100-person workforce has left the museum over the past two months.

Will Murray, one of the museum’s lead maintenance technicians, has worked at the museum for 23 years. When he first started, he says there were 14 people who worked in maintenance. Now, he says there are four.

“During the pandemic, we realized that without overtime, we weren't making a living wage,” Murray said. “As a matter of fact, one of my co-workers is not here today, because he had to take on a part time job. One job should be enough for a living wage.”

Iman Cuffie works in the Learning and Community Engagement department, which she said is now down to four employees from 15 before the pandemic.

“The changes that were made to my department specifically speak to how little the Walters actually values its educational staff and the people that are responsible for almost all of the public facing programming,” she said.

Cuffie said the loss of staff has exacerbated workplace inequities.

“There's been a maintaining of a lot of the glass ceilings that disproportionately affect a lot of my African American co-workers, and a lot of staff that are not given opportunities to rise higher than the positions they started in, which are entry level and terribly paid,” she said. “It's enough. We've had enough of this.”

Like Cuffie, Allison Gulick, the Learning and Community Engagement coordinator, said having just four people in the department is unsustainable.

“That really affects our ability to keep up morale and to provide the type of programming that our audiences have come to expect from the Walters,” Gulick said.

Ruby Waldo, a part time educator who has worked at the museum for the past four years, said even the part time education staff has been reduced.

“The work doesn't go away. It just gets passed on to the shoulders of part time workers who don't receive benefits from the museum,” Waldo said. “At this point, I think we can all agree that the museum needs to meet with us immediately, that this is an urgent matter.”

Waldo is urging visitors to show their support in a guestbook, or to make their voices heard on the museum’s social media accounts.

Sarah Y. Kim is WYPR’s health and housing reporter. Kim is WYPR's Report for America corps member, and Anthony Brandon Fellow. Kim joined WYPR as a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. Now in her second year as an RFA corps member, Kim is based in Baltimore City.