Better Bargain

Could the horizons be broader for architecture unions?

Unlike for the WGA and SAG members on strike for months under the LA sun, it was a lukewarm labor summer for architectural workers. A glimmer of optimism came in May with Snøhetta’s New York and San Francisco offices announcing their efforts to form a union, but those hopes were dashed in July by a tight 35–29 vote against unionization.

Broadly untenable economic conditions—“post”-Covid inflation, Biden ending the pause on student debt payments, rents as a portion of income topping 50 percent—have likely provided the impetus for these and many other unionization campaigns and labor actions across the country. The promises of higher wages, greater job security, paid sick leave, health insurance, retirement funds, and protection from dangerous working conditions form the bare minimum of what is required for survival in the US. They are also at play for UPS workers and WGA members, who are demanding, respectively and among other things, air-conditioning in delivery vehicles and pension and health care contributions.

In this context, architectural workers could be said to be faring relatively well, despite the increasing amounts of debt accumulated during architectural education, on which Anjulie Rao has reported in these pages. Indeed, the workers behind two widely covered unionization efforts in the US insist on their fortunate circumstances: “a rare office that prioritized a work-life balance” (Bernheimer Architecture employee Chris Beck writing in Jacobin) and “an extremely good place to work” (Clio Chang reporting for Curbed about Snøhetta). Perhaps these relatively favorable conditions are what’s holding workers back from voting yes on a union once they face opposition from their bosses.

In addition to workplace issues, worsening social conditions—from oppressive policing to increasing vulnerability to every kind of natural disaster—have influenced architectural worker organizing. Discussions at SHoP Architects in response to the global protests of George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020, for example, partially catalyzed the unionization campaign at that firm. But despite these ripe conditions and 68 percent public approval of unions in the US, organizing campaigns at architecture firms are very few in number, and the process is a long and arduous road with no guarantee of success.

IN THE US, the contemporary labor-organizing push in architecture really kicked off in December 2021 with SHoP workers in New York. Their unprecedented campaign to become the first private-sector union of architects in the country in some eighty-odd years came to an unceremonious end before a vote was held with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). As Dan Roche reported in NYRA, organizers within the firm faced a counter campaign by SHoP’s leadership to boost its new employee stock ownership plan as an alternative to a union. The workers pulled their petition when they realized there was no longer enough support for their bid.

The SHoP campaign set in motion a pattern for the two others that have gone public since: Architectural Workers United (AWU), which helped organize workers at Bernheimer Architecture (BA) and Snøhetta, was founded in 2022 out of the ashes of the SHoP attempt, and, like SHoP, both BA and Snøhetta attempted to affiliate with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (the Machinists, or IAM for short).

Why the Machinists? Initially, SHoP workers sought advice from , a longtime union organizer for the Machinists who made a major effort to understand the particulars of the architectural industry. They met DiMaria through Erik Forman, a contact of the Architecture Lobby and an organizer of the Independent Drivers Guild, an affiliate of the Machinists. DiMaria was the first person, and the Machinists the first union, whom the SHoP workers spoke with, but Andrew Daley, a former SHoP worker who was part of the organizing effort and was later hired by the Machinists to head AWU, explains that the organizers “actually did a whole interview process with people from OPEIU, SEIU, IFPTE, and a couple other places.” “Either we didn’t like what we were hearing,” he continues, “or we would tell them what we were doing with David, and they would say, ‘Sounds like you’re doing everything right. If you like that relationship, then go for it. I’d love to work with you, but it sounds like I’d be doing the same thing, and you’d have to reeducate me on the six months that you just educated him on.’”

With this precedent set by SHoP, BA pushed ahead, seeking voluntary recognition from management before proceeding to an NLRB vote. Perhaps exceptionally, founder and principal Andrew Bernheimer readily provided that recognition, stating that were he an architectural worker, he would want to work at a unionized firm. AWU and the Machinists insist on always asking for voluntary recognition, in part because, in the words of Daley, “companies are getting really good press for meeting their workers on their own terms, so you never know.”

But the relatively smooth experience at BA—and more recently at Sage & Coombe Architects, whose fourteen-employee office also won voluntary recognition as of September 14—belies how difficult the struggle can be. Some workers who are comfortable with the partnership approach might not be so at ease with the inevitably antagonistic situation that develops when companies refuse to voluntarily recognize. Just as this piece was going to print, a glimpse of that antagonism came into public view. On August 29, the Machinists filed a charge with the NLRB against Snøhetta for “unlawfully discriminating against several employees for having exercised their right to engage in concerted activities.” The extent of the retaliation these pro-union workers faced, and are possibly still facing, remains to be seen following an NLRB investigation. Even if the Snøhetta (or SHoP for that matter) campaign had concluded in a successful vote, contentious contract negotiations would likely follow. Against these protracted and arduous obstacles, the Machinists are a long way off from representing a significant number of architectural workers and for the time being “winning the contract” is the extent of AWU’s vision.

GIVEN THEIR RELATIVELY comfortable working conditions, some architects might want to organize to win demands beyond the contract. What happens then? A few years before the founding of AWU, architectural workers in the UK sought to answer this question. As part of an organizing push in 2018, they conducted a survey under the banner of “Workers Inquiry: Architecture” and ultimately founded a section of the grassroots union United Voices of the World–Section of Architectural Workers (UVW–SAW). This latter group prides itself on the members’ acting directly on each other’s behalf, even on issues outside of the scope of their contracts, while “in the process of improving pay and conditions, politicizing people.”

This isn’t common. Jake Arnfield bemoans how in his London workplace, which is not affiliated with SAW, “the union basically negotiates on your behalf; there’s no relationship between the union and the workforce other than the fact that you pay dues.” Arnfield, who is an elected organizer with SAW, says that union organizers sometimes have different goals from those of the workers. “What can happen is that there’s too much of a focus on retaining the agreement [versus] on transforming the conditions of the people that work there.” Daley experiences similar tension in his work, between, in his words, “‘How much of the work am I doing and how much am I responsible for?’ and ‘How do we make sure that the workers there are building the solidarity themselves?’”

Nevertheless, the involvement of union organizers tends to focus on the contract. Chris Dols of the Alternative Building Industry Collective, a new initiative spearheaded by the Architecture Lobby’s Green New Deal working group and the advocacy organization Science for the People, advocates one-on-one engagement between coworkers to create opportunities to share issues, while still recognizing the union organizer’s responsibility to expand workers’ ideas of what’s possible. He says he often asks his coworkers, “What do you take issue with, whether or not you think that we can do anything about it?” As Arnfield puts it, “[We take] this approach of ‘focus on what matters to an individual first and then constantly expand the interest of that person, allowing them to recognize that their interests are also interconnected with their colleagues’, which are interconnected with their communities’, which are interconnected with the planet.’”

Despite ripe conditions and 68 percent public approval of unions in the US, organizing campaigns at architecture firms are very few in number, and the process is a long and arduous road with no guarantee of success.

Such efforts can extend the impact of labor organizing beyond a particular workplace or contract to broader issues, such as the environment. In 2022, the Machinists passed a resolution resolving to “undertake an examination of the potential impact of climate change on the jobs and industries of IAM members.” But what about the other way around? The US military is the single-largest consumer of oil in the world, and the Machinists—who represent, for example, workers at Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamics—are tethered to the seemingly unstoppable growth of the defense budget.

This hasn’t always been the case. In the 1990s, Louis Uchitelle reported in the New York Times that as a result of downward trends in military spending, the Machinists were considering “conversion” to producing nonmilitary goods. “When it comes to putting pressure on military contractors to stop making warplanes and guns and start making subway cars or electric autos,” Uchitelle wrote, “no group is more ambivalent than the nation’s labor unions.” That the Machinists lobbied to fund both union-made fighter jets as well as subway cars shows that their attitude toward the climate crisis hinges on the short-term job security of their members rather than the long-term goal of reducing carbon emissions, not to mention transitioning to a fossil fuel–free economy.

Could the Machinists be pressured by their members to return to this bygone ambivalence or maybe go even further? As the first architectural company to unionize with the Machinists, BA is in a peculiar position: it primarily designs social housing and arguably has a lot less to answer for than bigger and bigger-name architectural companies that take on projects, like luxury residential buildings and carceral facilities, that exacerbate economic and social problems. Will the social-good orientation of BA’s projects carry over into its interaction with its contractor counterparts in the union? The main outlet for union-wide interaction, Daley says, are the conventions, at which delegates have the opportunity to propose changes to the union’s constitution, subject to approval or rejection by other delegates. Eventually, once their ranks grow enough to have a significant contingent at such a convention, what might architectural delegates propose?

To Dols, such a question can only be answered by identifying the workers’ interests. In this way, architectural workers could address the larger social conditions that might have spurred them toward organizing in the first place while also taking into account their more immediate needs. This approach, known as “bargaining for the common good,” brings union members into conversation with community members to include in their contract negotiations items that benefit society more broadly. It gives union members the ability to leverage their power on behalf of groups that lack the ability to form such demands.

If empowered to organize this way, architectural workers might, for example, refuse to work with clients known for exploiting construction workers or turn down new construction projects in order to reduce the climate impacts of their work. In other words, they might use the power in their union to address the societal harms of architectural production beyond the immediate exploitation of professionalized architectural workers in private companies. But first, architectural workers have to actually join unions.

Marisa Cortright is practicing her Serbo-Croatian in Zagreb. She grew up in Oregon and studied at Barnard College and Columbia GSAPP, where she is currently guest editor of The Avery Review.