Union organizers outside the Baltimore Museum of Art on the day of their election victory (photo by Erin Riordan)

The outdoor sculpture garden at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) is one of my favorite places to be posted. After guarding at the BMA for the past few years, I’ve found that I’m in my best mind while working in the garden. The art is inspiring, the fresh air invigorating. It’s a great place to wander, both physically and mentally. It’s been over a year since workers at the BMA began to organize, and everything was coming down to this moment. I was glad to be in one of my favorite places when the news was announced. 

Towards the end of election day, while stationed in the garden, my eyes were glued to my phone as voting came to a close. The next few minutes were tense but exciting. If we win, workers at the BMA will secure the chance to collectively bargain with museum leaders to increase pay, enhance benefits, ensure job security, and basically have a seat at the table moving forward. If we lose, it’s back to business as usual. Pro-union workers texted each other vigorously as the vote ended and we awaited the results: “This is the longest few minutes ever!” It sure was. 

When the final vote of 89-to-29 came in, and the dream of a union was realized, waves of joy and gratitude flowed over me. Not only did we win, we won by a very healthy margin. Even if all the non-votes were added to the “No” pile, we would have still won handily. A narrower margin would have felt less momentous, as it would mean that closer to half of the BMA’s workers were against a union. As much as I wanted to run inside and celebrate with my fellow workers, I was thankful to have a moment to myself in the garden. A fine mist filled my eyes and I caught myself holding back the tears. It’s been a rough few years for workers around the world, especially for those of us considered essential. This win was a long time coming. 

Close-up image of a BMA staff member’s ID badge with an “I voted Yes” sticker on it (photo Dereck Stafford Mangus/Hyperallergic)

Such a victory was no easy feat. There were many moving parts and it took over a year to organize. Being part of the union process was enlightening, both in terms of how it works and how workers reacted. It was telling to see the ways different staff members responded to the idea of a union. Some of the pro-union workers started out strong, organizing early but later taking more of a backseat role while other comrades came in hard towards the end. Some were more vocal, while others chose to be silent partners. A few of the original organizers have since left the museum. Nevertheless, their work helped to plant the seeds that blossomed into the first workers union at the BMA. It was truly a group effort. 

As with all group projects though, there were those who actively sought to undermine the effort. Colleagues I assumed would be pro-union based on their political leanings were surprisingly against collectivization. It’s hard to know why a worker would be anti-union. Some colleagues were close to retirement and didn’t want to rock the boat. I get that. But younger to middle-aged workers who are generally progressive yet still voted “No” confound me. A labor union fails or succeeds in direct proportion to the conviction, dedication, and effectiveness of its members. A “No” vote to the very idea of one belies a cynical worldview I can’t quite fathom. It essentially says you have no faith in your fellow workers. 

Our victory came a little over a month after workers at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the public library system in Baltimore, first announced their plans to unionize. The Walters Art Museum got the ball rolling even earlier, when workers there went public with their intention to unionize last summer. Unfortunately, their efforts have been stalled by museum leaders refusing to even meet with them about a path forward. Perhaps the BMA Union’s victory will help spark momentum. The wave of cultural institutions collectivizing in Baltimore is part of a larger, national movement. Workers the world over are fed up. We want our voices heard. It’s time to listen.

Originally from Boston, Dereck Stafford Mangus is a visual artist and writer based in Baltimore. His artwork has been exhibited in select galleries throughout Charm City, and his writing has appeared in...