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Why the Walters Art Museum Workers Want to Unionize

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Walters Art Museum staff within the security, visitor experience, curatorial, conservation, collections, and education departments, among others, announced their intent to unionize with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 67, as part of the Cultural Workers United campaign. Organizers from Walters Workers United, created in January as first reported by the Baltimore Fishbowl, say that “the health and safety of employees, transparency, pay equity, and the museum’s top-down decision-making” are among the primary concerns they want to address.

The goal is to form a wall-to-wall union representing workers in nearly every aspect of museum operations. “We’ve got conservators, we’ve got people working in security who are on the floor, we’ve got frontline workers, educators, administrative staff,” says Elizabeth Norman, an Assistant Manager of Gallery Experience in the visitor experience department, one of the organizers. “There’s just a huge variety.”

Museum leadership has not voluntarily recognized the union this week, explaining that it’s important for employees to make their own independent decision. In an emailed statement, director Julia Marciari-Alexander said that at a staff meeting they discussed staff’s intent to form a union and shared the Walters Workers United website, as well as a letter she’d received from the organizing committee.

“I think it is important that each staff member—and especially those who would be eligible to join a union—have the opportunity to see this information for themselves,” her statement said. “I also reiterated that we respect the rights of our employees to consider unionizing and think that their ability to vote their preference on this issue is essential. In that context, I affirmed that voluntarily recognizing the union would be inappropriate, because the critical voice and decision here belongs to the employees themselves through a confidential vote managed by the National Labor Relations Board.”

 

The critical voice and decision here belongs to the employees themselves through a confidential vote managed by the National Labor Relations Board.
Julia Marciari-Alexander

In a previous statement after Walters Workers United first announced their intent to unionize, Marciari-Alexander emphasized leadership’s “respect and value” for employees (and their right to unionize), and cited the fact that workers remained employed while the pandemic shut down the museum, and that the museum raised hourly wages and updated its DEAI plan and goals.

“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,” Marciari-Alexander’s statement continued.

Organizers have been collecting union cards and were hoping that museum leadership would voluntarily recognize the union. Now organizers must request an election through the NLRB. Out of the approximately 100 eligible employees, a simple majority of 50 percent plus 1 will need to vote in favor of the union in order to formally establish it. Organizers believe there is a majority in favor of the union across departments.

In January, the Walters announced that once the museum reopened, full-time employees would earn at minimum $15/hour, and part-timers would earn at minimum $13/hour. The museum credits this change to the work of its internal DEAI committees, and notes that in the future, they “will create a new compensation strategy as part of our institutional DEAI goals that continues to improve pay equity for full- and part-time staff.” 

In March, the museum announced an “expanded” version of its origin story, updating text in the galleries and on the website to explain how founders William and Henry Walters supported the Confederacy and profited from slavery, facts previously omitted from the institutional narrative. These texts also admit the “biased and Eurocentric view” of the founders’ collecting practices, a significant change after a century of omission around the founders’ political affiliations. 

The museum also unveiled an updated DEAI plan in an effort to meet its 2015 strategic plan’s goal to “situate itself more firmly in Baltimore—a diverse city that is majority African American—and the region by investing in its citizens.” Included within the DEAI plan are steps to re-envision the Walters’ education programs, promote workforce development and “support ladders of opportunity to museum careers,” develop and share “a new compensation strategy that promotes pay equity,” and “[underpin] all of the museum’s efforts with ongoing review of data, metrics, and results in order to promote understanding and accountability.”

 

The Walters 1 West Madison building, formerly Hackerman House

Workers on the union’s organizing committee applaud these changes, which “show that the museum leadership knows that in order to be really responsible to Baltimore City and to our staff, we’ve got to make some real lasting changes,” Norman says, pointing out that the Walters’ efforts coincide with changes that need to happen within the museum field at large. “For me, the missing piece is working fully in partnership with the staff to shape and create and then live that vision of what the museum could be. That’s where I think a union can come in and be a really strong part of that process.”

That’s why organizers want to form a wall-to-wall union. Walters organizers chose AFSCME in part because it already represents so many museum and culture workers. Philadelphia Museum of Art workers recently succeeded in forming a wall-to-wall union through AFSCME, despite a strong opposition campaign by leadership.

Norman says she hopes to be able to build in more opportunities for advancement with a union. She started working at the museum in 2018 and has worked under every labor classification, from independent contractor to part-time to full-time within the education department, before moving into her current full-time position in visitor experience. In education, Norman noticed co-workers who’d been in the same roles for several years seemingly without a clear path to advance. 

“I was seeing a lot of really high turnover, and a lot of burnout, and also a lot of communication issues,” Norman says. “Pretty much everyone I’ve worked with has been really passionate about museum education, has been passionate about working with children, working with families, working with the public to create the best experience that they can. I think we’ve got a lot of people who have been working really hard, but the pay doesn’t necessarily reflect how hard people are working and how hard they’re expected to work.”

 

Walters workers say they're so fiercely advocating change because they care about the museum and see its potential for improvement.
Rebekah Kirkman

Garrett Stralnic has worked as a gallery officer since 2019, a large chunk of which took place during the pandemic. He wants to unionize in part because he senses that upper management harbors an “unwarranted lack of respect for my coworkers,” he says. “Due to certain disparaging comments that have been made in security meetings, there’s a fear of retaliation—and even disciplinary measures—when one of us considers taking an unplanned sick day.”

Norman adds that full-time employees have benefits, “but it doesn’t always feel like those benefits are available equally to all employees across departments,” she says. The union also hopes to advocate for part-time workers to receive benefits.

Stralnic questions the fairness of the recently raised wages, where newer employees like him now earn the same wage as veterans in the same role. “I know at least one of my co-workers was not getting paid $15 an hour before,” he says, adding that he believes people who have worked there longer should be more appropriately compensated. “They are someone who has been working at the Walters for well over a decade. At this point, that person is getting paid the same amount that I am, and I just don’t feel like that’s fair.” 

A Walters spokesperson confirmed that everyone whose pay went up with the minimum-wage increase received that raise regardless of how long they’d been working at the museum; the spokesperson wasn’t sure whether any long-term workers saw an increase to greater than $15/hour.

 

Galleries at The Walters

Walters Workers United join a growing wave of museum workers unionizing. Last summer, Art Papers published a multimedia project documenting this uptick of museum worker organizing, claiming it started “in 2018 and collided with COVID-19.” As in nearly every profession and industry, the pandemic pressed upon the innumerable and ongoing labor issues in the art world: pay disparities, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and more. These conditions have contributed to the increase in a variety of cultural organizing, from the Museums Are Not Neutral movement to unionization.

Additionally, numerous anonymous and crowdsourced Instagram accounts began cropping up over the past year to call out the art world’s racism. This tactic wasn’t novel, but the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests catalyzed more activity. Many social media accounts focused on specific museums or educational institutions while others, such as Change the Museum, are broader. Stories submitted to these accounts document both instances and patterns of mistreatment, from racist microaggressions to full-throated harassment, exclusion, and abuse.

In September, the anonymous Instagram account @ABetterWAM began sharing complaints about the Walters as a workplace, most notably with regard to pay inequity and poor communication. In an email exchange with BmoreArt last fall, ABetterWAM described itself as a small group of “staff members across every division in the museum.” The anonymous Instagram group’s agitating for change echoes some of the union’s stated priorities, but on a recent phone call, members of the organizing committee said the union is not associated with ABetterWAM.  

Social media can be useful in persuading institutions to change, notes Dana Kopel, a former New Museum worker and now a labor organizer, in a recent essay at the German art magazine Texte Zur Kunst. But actual change demands more action. “Shifting public opinion—public shaming—is a tool, and sometimes an important one,” Kopel writes. “But it’s not in itself a strategy. There is no higher power to turn to for justice. We, the workers, have to make that justice ourselves.”

Walters workers say they’re so fiercely advocating change because they care about the museum and see its potential for improvement. “This is completely an effort where it’s all people who really love the Walters and really want to keep working at the Walters,” Norman says. “We want to make it a really wonderful, great place, to be the place that we know that it can be.”

 

BmoreArt's third magazine release party hosted at The Walters in 2017
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