BALTIMORE — May 1, also known as “May Day” and designated International Workers’ Day by the Second International in the late 19th century, is a significant date in United States labor history. May Day commemorates the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago, when workers violently clashed with authorities and ultimately won the right to an eight-hour workday — a benefit so commonplace these days, it’s easy to forget it ever had to be fought for. 

Exactly two years ago today, on May 1, 2021, workers at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore publicly announced their intention to form a union. Walters Workers United (WWU) was the first of several major institutions in the city to begin what may now be called a labor movement in the cultural sector. Workers at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) and Enoch Pratt Free Library later followed their lead, going public with their own plans to form the BMA Union (BMAU) and Pratt Workers United (PWU), respectively, and are both now part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the same labor group currently helping WWU secure their election.

Though WWU was the first to begin organizing, their progress was thwarted when museum leaders at the Walters attempted to delay or even derail the process. In a newsletter disseminated last September, right before Labor Day weekend, Walters Art Museum Director Julia Marciari-Alexander wrote that workers “resisted taking the necessary steps within their control in order to proceed to a union vote,” a claim the union denounced as patently false.

Workers and organizers from various unions during the “Rally for Respect and Recognition” in Mt. Vernon Place in downtown Baltimore in August 2021

Museum staff at the Walters fell into a gap in labor law covered by the public sector. In 2022 and 2023, workers introduced legislation to enable their bargaining rights and have their union recognized. This created necessary pressure, opening an opportunity to have discussions with museum leadership about union recognition. Ultimately, workers at the Walters were able to secure a neutral third-party union election agreement. Through two years of activity, workers rallied, petitioned, made phone calls, sent emails, and went public with their support to form a union. Their solidarity won the day. 

Part of the Walters workers’ struggle for their union has also been a struggle for transparency and accountability at the Walters. Last spring, an AFSCME staff person on behalf of Walters Workers United filed a FOIA requesting financial information and details about how museum leadership was communicating about the union. Workers sought to better understand how the museum was engaging with their union struggle and how its funds were being used during this process. 

Museum leadership refused access to internal correspondences regarding the union, claiming that the Walters is a private institution and therefore not covered by the Maryland Public Information Act. Judge John Nugent of the Baltimore City Circuit Court disagreed and later issued a ruling finding the Walters Art Museum “an instrumentality of the government for the purposes of the Maryland Public Information Act.” 

The Walters Art Museum did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

With a union election agreement now in place, the workers at the Walters have momentum towards an election, while the BMAU and PWU have won their respective elections and are each in the midst of their first contract negotiations.

Much of the unionization efforts in Baltimore these past two years began during the pandemic and related quarantines, which affected the operational hours of these public organizations. As “essential workers,” frontline staff at art museums and libraries were expected to continue working in close proximity to visitors throughout various closures and reopenings. For many of them, noted Gregory Bailey, senior objects conservator at the Walters for the last eight years, “the COVID-19 era exposed the precariousness of our employment and support networks.”

“Despite a global pandemic and very high turnover of staff, we have maintained a strong majority of support over the past two years,” Bailey said. “Worker solidarity and mutual aid are the natural responses to this reality.”

“Art is nothing without the people behind it,” read one sign at the August 2021 rally.

There are several other public organizations in Baltimore that have yet to unionize: the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) and, nearby, the Maryland Science Center and National Aquarium, all located around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor — not too far from Enoch Pratt and the Walters. One reason may be the limited, ever-shifting worker pool at these institutions. A close source who works at AVAM and asked to remain anonymous explained how a small museum staff with high turnover has led to nothing more than “casual talks among part-time staff about the idea of unionizing, but no actual steps or planning.” Perhaps a union election victory at the Walters will inspire these other public institutions. 

Baltimore has a long, storied past steeped in union lore. In fact, the first attempt to form a national labor group in the US began there when the National Labor Union was founded on August 20, 1866. One of their primary goals was to get Congress to mandate an eight-hour workday. Though they did not achieve it at the time, their work laid the seeds for a future victory. The idea of an eight-hour workday was picked up again, decades later, during the progressive campaign of Theodore Roosevelt. The movement’s slogan became: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what you will.” It may take years to come to fruition, but momentum needs to come from somewhere. Like the National Labor Union’s early efforts, the WWU lit the fuse that ultimately ignited a union boom in Baltimore.

Though far removed from those turbulent years of the early American labor movement, when violent clashes erupted between union busters and organizers alike, the fight for enhanced benefits, livable wages, and overall better working conditions continues in the post-industrial 21st century.

“Walters Art Museum workers want to have a say in their workplace and protect their employment,” explains Lex Reehill, monitor room officer at the museum. “Many have worked at the Walters for years, even decades, and being ‘at-will’ means that employment is not protected. We want a sustainable way to provide for our families that will not disappear overnight, at the discretion of management.”

Walters Workers United members projected their objectives on the facade of the museum in October 2022.

While arts and cultural organizations may be less likely to resort to the severe anti-union tactics of yesteryear, they are not above a more passive approach of obfuscation and stalling. By dragging out the process or denying elections based on outdated practices, many of them hope to win the long game by sewing the seeds of doubt among the rank and file.

The surge in unionization across Baltimore’s many beloved cultural institutions over the past two years calls for its own form of recognition. From being known as “The Monumental City” in the early 19th century after a boom in memorial construction following the War of 1812 to its rebranding as “Charm City” in the mid-1970s as part of a PR campaign to economically reboot a struggling post-industrial metropolis, Baltimore has operated under different aliases over the years. Considering the recent sustained wave of labor organizing in Baltimore, it may be time for a new one: “Union City.” 

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...