The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland (via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been almost a year and a half since a majority of employees at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum announced their intent to unionize with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), but a union election still has yet to take place. Now, the union is suing the museum, which has refused to comply with a Freedom of Information (FOIA) Request to turn over union-related communications.

Greg Bailey, who works in the museum’s conservation department, stated that the museum had declined to speak with Walters Workers United (WWU) “on any matter relating to labor relations.” “A freedom of information act request ensures the transparency and accountability we so sorely need in this matter,” Bailey said.

At an impasse in May, AFSCME and the year-old WWU used the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) to request internal museum communications regarding union organizing, including materials such as notes from the Walters’s board meetings and contracts between the institution and any law firms that may have provided advice on union matters. The move, according to a union statement, “brings to light the question of whether the Walters Art Museum is a public institution.”

The museum refused the request, stating that it is a private entity and therefore not subject to the MPIA.

This was not the first time the museum had declared itself a private rather than public institution — a distinction that has defined WWU’s struggle for an election. If the museum is private, it can require the election to be overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which, by an antiquated Pinkerton-era law, prevents security guards from joining the union. The guards, who constitute around a third of Walters’s workforce, would have to form a separate union. A two-union system would ostensibly 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 leadership ultimately agreed to an election overseen by a neutral third party — a member of the American Arbitration Association (AAA) — and its workers achieved a wall-to-wall union with AFSCME in June.

When reached for comment, a museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic: “We have been made aware of a potential legal action and will engage in the legal process as appropriate.”

The September 12 lawsuit against Walters, filed by WWU and AFSCME, lays out the case for Walters as a public institution. Founded in 1931, Walters was created when Henry Walters left his art collection to the city of Baltimore, which established the Board of Trustees in 1933. The city still holds the power to appoint board members and dictate their tenure, and the city owns Walters’s buildings. Other arguments for the museum as a public institution include its tax-exempt status (based on it being an instrument of Maryland state), the fact that it is required to submit financial reports to the city, and Walters’s receipt of public funding — over $45 million from 2003 to 2021.

Yet, in September of last year, the city’s chief solicitor issued a letter to the City Council stating that the museum was not a city entity, which Baltimore’s mayor publicly disputed in a June letter to 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 funding and, as such, has a responsibility to abide by democratic values and respect the collective will of its employees to form a single wall-to-wall union in their workplace.”

Mayor Brandon Scott also assured his support for Walters workers, urging the museum to follow in the footsteps of the Baltimore Museum of Art and allow a neutral third party to oversee the union vote. Walters has made no indication of doing so, and has publicly announced that WWU should proceed with an NLRB election and criticized the union for not taking “substantive action” toward a vote.

Now, even if WWU and AFSCME win the lawsuit, the museum will be able to appeal, a move that would further delay a union election.

“Our decision to file is based in the spirit of transparency and clarity,” stated Garrett Stralnic, a member of Walters’s security team said in a statement. “As with the MPIA request, Walters’ management is using their claim of being a private entity to avoid being accountable to workers and blocking us from an inclusive union election.”

Editor’s note 9/21/22 10:30am EDT: This article has been edited to correct a previous version, which stated that the Baltimore Museum of Art’s union election was overseen by the city. It was overseen by a member of the American Arbitration Association.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.