City Council Shows Support for Walters Workers United, Museum Director Cancels Gala

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On Thursday, Baltimore City Council’s Education, Workforce, and Youth Committee held a hearing aiming to clarify Walters Workers United’s path toward union recognition. The two-hour meeting included testimonies from workers about why they want to unionize, messages of support from community members, questions from councilmembers, legal arguing and detangling from union and city lawyers, and unwavering statements of impartiality from museum director Julia Marciari-Alexander.

Marciari-Alexander’s stance has been resolute since Walters Art Museum workers announced their intent to unionize in April: She supports her employees’ right to form a union, but insists that the process must be conducted through a National Labor Relations Board election. She will not voluntarily recognize the union because, she says, doing so would constitute interference or partiality, and she is committed to remaining “hands-off” on all sides. 

Workers maintain that they want an election, but AFSCME lawyer Teague Paterson said in the meeting that the museum, as a “public corporation,” does not fall under the jurisdiction of the NLRB, so they would need to get a third party to run the election. (The NLRB works with private institutions.) City lawyer Hilary Ruley clarified that Walters employees are not municipal workers and that the museum is not a city agency, so the city cannot give those workers collective bargaining rights. But this of course doesn’t preclude their right to organize.

Ruley added that the union and the museum have “a complicated dispute” over what it means under federal law for their right to unionize—and that her department cannot advise either side on labor law as it is out of their expertise. 

Marciari-Alexander said that the museum’s legal counsel, “in deep exploration of the subject, does strongly believe that the NLRB does have this jurisdiction.”

Paterson reiterated that the union cannot go through NLRB, arguing again that the museum is a public corporation, workers’ retirement plan is a “governmental plan,” and the Walters property tax exemption exists “because it is a government instrumentality,” he said. “It’s clear to me that this is not a private institution subject to the NLRB, it just isn’t.”


Screenshot from AFSCME lawyer's slideshow at Baltimore City Council October 14 committee meeting
Screenshot from AFSCME lawyer's slideshow at Baltimore City Council October 14 committee meeting

Councilmembers seemed confused by the debate. “My understanding is we are at an impasse between management and labor,” said Councilmember Zeke Cohen (1st District). He asked Marciari-Alexander whether she would be willing to meet with the workers and AFSCME to discuss the path forward. 

“​​At this point, I do not interfere,” Marciari-Alexander said. Even taking a meeting to discuss these things would be considered “taking a side,” she said, because she could “inadvertently” say something that would sway an employee one way or another toward or against the union. “No discussion is the only thing that allows them to make their own decision,” she said.

For months, WWU has attempted to meet with Marciari-Alexander and the board to discuss an election administered by a mutually agreed-upon and impartial third party, but the director has declined all such meetings. Walters organizers have also repeated for months that they have supermajority support among union-eligible employees, who have signed authorization cards. The city’s Office of the Labor Commissioner said that it could certify the results of an election once it takes place. 

Councilmember James Torrence (7th District) asked both sides if they’d be amenable to that process—getting an independent entity to administer the election with the labor commissioner certifying the results. The union said yes, Marciari-Alexander said no.

In a Friday morning press release, WWU recapped the meeting, noting that “City Council members were impressed with the testimony of Walters’ staff. Immediately after the hearing, a majority of City Council members signed a letter [written by AFSCME] supporting a verification of majority support on union cards and a non-NLRB neutral third-party election.”

The city council letter, dated October 21, 2021, and signed by nine councilmembers, is a formal request to the Walters board, leadership, and staff to resolve the situation. City comptroller Bill Henry also sent a letter, dated October 14, 2021, to Marciari-Alexander expressing support for the union and similarly requesting resolution.

Hours after the meeting, they continued, Marciari-Alexander canceled the museum’s annual fundraising gala, which would have been this Saturday evening. 

According to the Baltimore Fishbowl, the gala was canceled “after museum leaders learned of potential ‘attempts to disrupt’ the event.” WWU told the Fishbowl they were not planning to disrupt the event. 

“We all came together to organize and prepare for the gala over the last year,” WWU’s press release said. “We are extremely disappointed to hear of the last minute decision to cancel this event given not only all the hard work put into it, but that it is a vital fundraising effort meant to make the institution we love thrive.”

The end of the organizers’ message contained an invitation to join them on Wednesday, October 20, at 6 p.m., at the State Center Complex “for a march to support collective bargaining rights and a living wage for all.” The march will end at the Walters.


This article has been updated (Oct. 25, 2021) with links to the City Council’s and Comptroller’s letters of support for the Walters union.


Header image: Previous gala image courtesy of the Walters Art Museum

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