The pandemic heightened concerns for many Baltimore art museum workers. Now, they’re unionizing. – Baltimore Fishbowl

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Ruby Waldo says she has felt the “gravitational pull” of the Walters Art Museum nearly all her life living in Baltimore.

“My relationship began with the Walters as a child where I spent many hours in the drop-in studio for weekend art-making and summer camp,” she said. “Later, in high school at the Baltimore School for the Arts, the museum became a beloved extension of our art history classroom.”

Now, as an educator in the Walters’ visitors experience department, Waldo continues to be enthralled by the museum’s magic. But she also has concerns about museum operations, which she and many of her colleagues hope to change by forming a union.

In May, workers at the Walters publicly launched their unionization effort, Walters Workers United, citing concerns about health, safety, transparency, pay equity, and “top-down decision making” by management.

And they’re not the only cultural institution employees hoping to unionize.

Baltimore Museum of Art workers in September announced plans to unionize, raising similar concerns about their own museum.

Across the United States, museums and other cultural institutions are seeing a wave of unionization efforts, sparked in part by the COVID-19 pandemic and the issues it has exacerbated.

Workers at the Walters and BMA are each unionizing with support from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 67.

Several Walters employees, including Waldo, testified Thursday during an informational hearing held by the Baltimore City Council’s Education, Workforce, and Youth Committee to discuss the unionization process for workers at the Walters.

During the hearing, Walters Workers United called on the Baltimore City Council to amend the city code to classify Walters workers as special employees of the city.

They argue that because the Walters receives both private and public funding, including financial support from the city, the museum’s workers should be allowed to unionize through AFSCME, which represents city employees.

Garrett Stralnic, a security guard at the Walters, voiced his frustration with the lack of communication from management to staff after the institution closed for three weeks when employees were exposed to chemical fumes from repairs to the roof of one of the museum’s buildings.

“The Walters failed to communicate to staff about organic vapors that made us sick,” Stralnic said. “The Walters inaction showed how disposable they see their staff. They did nothing to communicate broadly and only did so after a majority of staff sent a letter to management.”

Sam Mera-Candedo, who works in the Walters’ conservation collections and technical research department, said the museum recently suspended a working group on diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion (DEAI) months after sharing with the public its goals for addressing inequities. Mera-Candedo said staff members of color are still not being heard.

“The institution wants to be viewed as progressive and anti-racist, but their actions, in particular towards frontline staff who many happen to be people of color, show it’s all empty words and promises,” she said.

Museum leaders say they respect employees’ rights to form unions and that a unionized workforce is feasible, and add they will not hinder workers at any step in the 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,” said Walters director Julia Marciari-Alexander in a May statement, reiterating those points at this week’s council hearing. “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.”

Tensions around the unionizing efforts appear to be growing, however.

Walters officials this week announced the cancellation of the in-person portion of an  annual fundraising gala, scheduled for Saturday night, after museum leaders learned of potential “attempts to disrupt” the event. Marciari-Alexander announced the decision Thursday, hours after the city council hearing, in an email to Walters staff, gala supporters and guests, and gala committee members.

The email does not mention Walters Workers United, but the group told Baltimore Fishbowl they had no intentions to disrupt the event, which Walters staff members helped to plan.

“We just want to have a conversation about how to accomplish our common goals and to form the union we want and deserve,” said Ashley Dimmig, Wieler-Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in Islamic Art, in the Walters’ curatorial department, in a statement.

The founder and publisher of Baltimore Fishbowl, Susan Dunn, is a member of the Walters Board of Trustees.

At the BMA, curatorial research associate Laura Albans told Baltimore Fishbowl that when the museum began reopening for the first time after being closed to the public for several months due to COVID-19, staff members provided input about reopening measures. But she does not feel the museum administration truly listened to workers, especially front-of-house staff who interact directly with the public and were at greater risk of contracting coronavirus.

“I was horrified to think that we were opening in September [2020] and putting our front-of-house people at risk,” Albans said.

Albans, who has worked at the BMA since 2002, said her salary has only increased with general cost of living increases of 1-3%, never based on her nearly two decades of experience or a promotion she has received.

“I’ve really dedicated a lot of blood, sweat and tears to the museum, being told a public thank you should be better than a raise. But it doesn’t pay the bills,” she said.

Albans said workers want to be meaningfully recognized for their hard work, like putting together exhibitions for Juan Gris, Henri Matisse, and Etta Cone within a quick turnaround.

“This is what we do,” she said. “This is what we love. It’s all about the art. It’s all about the museum. But we need to be treated fairly and equitably and not just given a thank you.”

When Walters Workers United announced their unionization in May, the workers and museum leaders both said they wanted to cooperate with each other. But six months later, Marciari-Alexander said she will not to meet with employees about unionizing in an effort to remain impartial.

Waldo said Walters workers would have preferred to handle the unionization process in house through private meetings with museum leadership rather than airing the issue publicly.

“Our organizing efforts could have been approached with a warmth and a willingness to listen,” she said. “Instead, we are here today, because despite all of our creative, critical and ongoing efforts, museum leadership refuses to hear us.”

Although Baltimore City provides about 15% of the Walters’ annual budget, Marciari-Alexander said the museum relies heavily on the contributions of private donors, and the gala is a major fundraiser.

“This is an extremely unfortunate situation,” she said in her email announcement regarding the cancellation. “Many members of our team, across multiple departments, have spent this entire year preparing for the Gala. They have done so with dedication and conviction, recognizing that this event is an important one for the Walters and its sustainability.

Instead of the in-person event, the museum will hold a virtual gala on Friday at 7 p.m.

Pay inequity is also present at the Walters, Stralnic said, who shared that he and two of his coworkers are paid the same amount even though those coworkers have each worked at the museum for more than a decade.

“Folks have invested decades of their lives in the Walters and there’s nothing that’s been done to compensate them for that,” he said.

Lex Reehill, who is a monitor room operator in the Walters’ security department, said he welcomed the news earlier this year that the Walters would institute a pay floor increase for full-time staff to $15 per hour. But Reehill, who has worked at the museum for five years, is frustrated that he makes the same amount as someone who is hired today.

“It feels as though my dedication to the museum is not valued, despite being an essential worker required to work through blizzards and pandemics,” he said in a statement to Baltimore Fishbowl. “My colleagues and I deserve equitable pay that is informed by our experience, and the additional duties we must perform.”

As a part-time employee, Waldo said she makes less per hour than her full-time colleagues. Part-time workers who work fewer than 30 hours per week do not receive benefits, including paid time off, sick days or health insurance, she said.

Matt Papich, who works in the exhibitions design and installation department at the BMA, has been with the museum for 15 years. He remembers the museum laying off workers in 2009 after the financial crisis, and he was motivated to unionize so that he and his colleagues will have better job security.

“We’ve been really lucky since then, especially last year with COVID,” Papich told Baltimore Fishbowl. “But I see a union as an opportunity to kind of guarantee that we don’t see something like that again or at least have more leverage.”

Waldo said museum management this year split the former education and public programming department into two departments, and reduced the size of that combined staff from 25 employees to six — weakening a link, she said, between the museum and the community.

And a week ago, Waldo said museum management informed the team of three educators that they would be reduced to two. As part of the change, one educator will have to voluntarily leave the museum, or all three will have to reapply for their jobs knowing only two will be rehired, Waldo said.

In the past month, Mera-Candedo said eight or nine staff members have quit due to frustrations.

“We’re tired, burned out and overwhelmed,” she said.

Jess Figard, who works in building operations at the Walters, said the museum is understaffed and employees are undercompensated for the work they do.

“Even after decades of service, some members of our team still need a second job,” Figard said in a statement. “We need a union because you should be able to live on wages from one full time job.”

Workers and administrators at both the BMA and the Walters have said they want an amicable unionization process at their respective institutions.

“I don’t think we need to have an acrimonious relationship with our administration because I think we want a lot of the same things,” said Papich, of the BMA. “So I can see us being a really great example of the union working closely with our leadership, aligning our goals and achieving things that are greater than expected before.”

Walters Workers United and the BMA Union each said a supermajority of their union-eligible employees have signed union authorization cards, and they have called on the leaders of their respective museums to voluntarily recognize their unions.

But both Marciaria Alexander, of the Walters, and Chris Bedford, director of the BMA, have refused to voluntarily recognize their respective workers’ unions.

The BMA released a statement Thursday afternoon regarding unionization at the museum.

“As an institution, the BMA respects the right of our staff to unionize, and we have affirmed in communications to all colleagues that should a majority vote to form a union that the Museum will work collaboratively with union representatives,” museum officials write in the statement.

Museum officials go on to say that employees have expressed a range of opinions on the subject of unionization, and that “it is essential that we have an independent election” to ensure that the decision of whether to unionize is “made truly by the majority of the staff.”

During the informational hearing on Thursday, Marciari-Alexander repeatedly said it is not her responsibility to recognize a union at this point. She said a vote would allow all Walters employees to make their voices heard, including those who do not want to unionize.

“We should not and will not and cannot take steps to interfere with or influence the outcome of a vote,” she said. “The most inclusive approach for our employees is to leave this decision at this point in the process to the employees, where that decision belongs.”

Marciari-Alexander has also declined to meet employees on either side of the unionization debate because she said doing so would mean she would be taking a side.

If workers wish to unionize, Marciari-Alexander said the appropriate course of action would be to go through the National Labor Relations Board.

One concern among Walters workers is that an election through the NLRB would leave out security guards and gallery monitors, who would not be able to organize with colleagues from other departments of the museum.

Reehill, who works in the Walters’ security department, said the museum management treats security workers as an “afterthought.”

“A wall-to-wall union is crucial for the betterment of the employees at the Walters,” Reehill said. “As security officers, it is our duty to protect the people and the artwork of the institution, but we do not get the same consideration.”

Teague Paterson, deputy general counsel with AFSCME, said the National Labor Relations Act only covers the private sector, and therefore the NLRB does not have jurisdiction over a union election for public entities like the Walters.

But Marciari-Alexander said the museum’s legal counsel have told her that workers at the Walters can pursue a union through the NLRB.

Instead of the NLRB route, Walters workers hope to pursue another avenue: an amendment to the city code to allow Walters workers to hold an election as special employees of the city.

But Chief Solicitor Hilary Ruley of the city’s law department on Thursday said the city council cannot expand collective bargaining through the city to Walters employees because the museum is not a city agency.

Another option could be to have a third-party oversee an election, which the city’s Office of the Labor Commissioner could certify the outcome.

Workers at the BMA already have special city employee status and have the option of collective bargaining through the city.

Albans said she and other BMA workers are still hoping Bedford will voluntarily recognize their union. If he does, she said it could send ripples to other cultural institutions.

“I honestly believe that when he publicly acknowledges us that he will actually open the doors for other institutions,” she said. “He’s trying to be the leader in so many things with his initiative of diversity, equity, accessibility, inclusion, and bringing in more artists of color and staff of color and artwork that actually shows people of color. People are watching him.”

A spokesperson from the Walters told Baltimore Fishbowl that Marciari-Alexander did not have anything additional to say beyond her comments during Thursday’s informational hearing.

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