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Walters Museum workers appeal to City Council members in union efforts

walters union rally.
Sarah Y. Kim/WYPR
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Workers rally for union recognition outside the Walters Museum in August. On Thursday, they appealed to City Council members.

Workers at the Walters Museum, management and Baltimore City officials debated whether the museum is a public or private institution at a council hearing Thursday, as staffers attempt to unionize through AFSCME, which represents city employees.

The museum is funded both publicly and privately; staffers receive benefits including healthcare through the city. Councilman James Torrence called the informational hearing “to allow us to better understand the importance of the labor election process and the implications of it.”

Supporters of the union liken the Walters to a quasi-agency, such as the Enoch Pratt Free Library, that falls under AFSCME’s jurisdiction.

Julia Marciari-Alexander, the museum’s director, has not voluntarily recognized them. She wants to bring the matter before the National Labor Relations Board, which, under the National Labor Relations Act, generally deals only with private companies.

“My position has been consistently and adamantly one of impartiality and non-interference in this process,” she said.

Teague Paterson, Deputy General Counsel at AFSCME, called that claim “a ruse” and argued that the entity straddles both public and private worlds — Baltimore City incorporated the museum and exerts some financial control over it, while also allowing it independence. Walters workers do not fall under NLRB jurisdiction, he said.

“So why does Walters management insist on an NLRB election? It's really not about elections, because we want an election. It's about union busting,” Paterson said.

He said the question over NLRB jurisdiction could lead to a series of legal proceedings that could be appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court: “It’s a trap to drag this process out.”

Marciari-Alexander disputed this. “We should not and will not and cannot take steps to interfere with or influence the outcome of a vote,” she said.

A supermajority of workers declared their intent to form the union more than six months ago, complaining of mandatory 16-hour shifts, low pay and high turnover.

“The Walters is a vital resource in Baltimore City. It is a place for practicing close attention,” Ruby Waldo, an educator at the museum and representative of Walters Workers United, told the Education, Workforce and Youth committee. “Imagine what such a place might feel like if its workers were treated with compassion and dignity.”

The hearing included testimony from the city’s law department. Chief Solicitor Hilary Ruley put it plainly: “The Walters is not a city agency. Just like any other private company, they are free to unionize.”

She added, however, that the museum workers’ union efforts are “far beyond my legal expertise or anyone in the law department. It's complicated. It has a bunch of determinations of federal labor law, and we wouldn't have anything to say on those particular issues.”

Representatives from the city Office of the Labor Commissioner said they would be able to certify the election once it takes place.

The majority of the Education, Workforce and Youth committee supported the workers and urged Marciari-Alexander to meet with them.

“I strongly urge Walters management and Walters Workers United to consider neutral arbitration,” committee chair Robert Stokes said. “While I hear that management does not want to take a position, it’s important that we move past this and find a respectful resolution that recognizes workers’ wishes.”

Mayor Brandon Scott supports the workers’ right to unionize, spokesman Cal Harris said in a statement.

“As a strong supporter of workers’ rights, Mayor Scott is carefully monitoring the organizing efforts at the Walters Art Museum,” Harris said. “The Mayor will always fight for workers to have the right to unionize, and will defend their ability to do so fairly and freely.”

In a letter, Comptroller Bill Henry said he supported Walters Workers United’s attempt to join AFSCME.

“My office will be formally requesting that the management of the Walters Art Museum, in mutual agreement with AFSCME, work with a reputable third-party dispute resolution agent or agency, to verify existing majority support for the union, or come to some separate election agreement with Walters’ staff and their union,” he wrote in a memo to council members.

An AFSCME official speaking on background said workers will hold a rally next week to pressure management to come to the table “instead of kicking the can to the NLRB.”