It has been almost a year and a half since a majority of employees at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore announced their intention to unionize with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), but a union election n still hasn’t happened. Now the union is suing the museum, which refused to comply with a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request to turn over union-related communications.
Greg Bailey, who works in the museum’s curatorial department, declared that the museum had refused to speak with Walters Workers United (WWU) “on any matter relating to labor relations”. “A request for a Freedom of Information Act ensures the transparency and accountability that we so desperately need in this matter,” Bailey said.
In a stalemate in May, the AFSCME and the year-old WWU used the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) to request internal communications from the museum regarding the union organization, including documents such as notes from Walters board meetings and contracts between the institution and any law firm. who may have provided advice on trade union matters. The decision, according to a statement from the union, “sheds light on the question of whether the Walters Art Museum is a public institution.”
The museum denied the request, stating that it is a private entity and therefore not subject to the MPIA.
It was not the first time the museum declared itself a private rather than a public institution – a distinction that defined WWU’s fight for an election. If the museum is private, it can require the election to be overseen not by the city but by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which, under an archaic Pinkerton-era law, prevent security guards to join the union. The guards, who constitute about a third of the Walters workforce, should form a separate union. A two-union system would apparently result in less bargaining power than a single wall-to-wall union.
In the same city, workers at the Baltimore Museum of Art recently navigated a similar predicament, but museum management eventually agreed to a mayoral election and its workers struck a wall-to-wall union with AFSCME in June.
When reached for comment, a museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic: “We have been made aware of potential legal action and will initiate the legal process if appropriate.”
The Sept. 12 lawsuit against Walters, filed by WWU and AFSCME, exposes Walters’ case as a public institution. Founded in 1931, Walters was created when Henry Walters left his art collection to the City of Baltimore, which created the board of directors in 1933. The city still holds the power to appoint board members and dictate their tenure, and the city owns the buildings of Walters. Other arguments in favor of the museum as a public institution include its tax-exempt status (based on it being an instrument of the state of Maryland), the fact that it is required to submit financial reports to the city and Walters’ receipt of public funding – over $45 million from 2003 to 2021.
Yet in September of last year, the city’s chief attorney issued a letter to the City Council declaring the museum not a city entity, which Baltimore’s mayor publicly disputed in June letter at the museum urging it to facilitate a union vote, stating, “The Walters is ultimately an agency of the City of Baltimore. It is supported by public funds and as such has a responsibility to uphold democratic values and respect the collective will of its employees to form one wall-to-wall union in their workplace.
Mayor Brandon Scott also pledged his support for Walters workers, urging the museum to follow in the footsteps of the Baltimore Museum of Art and allow the city to oversee the union vote. Walters made no such indication and publicly announced that WWU should conduct an NLRB election and criticized the union for not taking “background actionto a vote.
Now, even if WWU and AFSCME win the lawsuit, the museum will be able to appeal, a decision that would further delay a union election.
“Our decision to file is based on a spirit of transparency and clarity,” Garrett Stralnic, a member of Walters’ security team, said in a statement. “As with the MPIA demand, Walters management is using its pretense of being a private entity to avoid being accountable to workers and to prevent us from holding an inclusive union election.”