Unions and Climate Action: A Conversation with Rio Morales, Jess Myers, and Elisa Iturbe

Rio Morales, Jess Myers, and Elisa Iturbe

NYRA discusses cooperatives, employee stock ownership plans, climate change, and the broader possibilities of unionization with three members of the Architecture Lobby.

NYRA: What is the relationship between unionization and having a cooperative?

Rio Morales: Both structures codify relationships and how decisions are made. Workers can move forward with any combination of possibilities because they’re the ones codifying these things and inventing them. That’s what was exciting about SHoP coming out as the first unionizing effort. The workers at SHoP have defined what a union means, and that’ll be looked to as an example. But it doesn’t preclude any other combination.

Jess Myers: Increasing the density of unions within the private sector and architecture generally also creates conditions for cooperative structures. Because both define a unit of workers and you’re agreed to make decisions about negotiating towards a contract together. It doesn’t mean that you’re friends with everybody. But it defines a relationship in concrete terms, which is something that I think architecture has tried to shy away from.

Elisa Iturbe: You are really emphasizing the fact that in any workplace, there’s constant negotiation. I think often we lose sight of that for so many different reasons and take for granted a certain set of power relations. That means that we allow our lives to be shaped by these forces that constantly feel like they are outside of our control. What you guys are talking about—whether it’s through the union or the union as a way to get to these other things like cooperatization—is this question of a social contract and a notion that we all together are defining the relationships that we engage in.

In architecture our workplaces can be very small, and we can have close relationships with the people who manage a project that we work for. What I hear you saying is that the union is not necessarily about bringing in constant antagonism, but recognizing that we should all actually consent to the conditions of work. You’re bringing back this notion of consent, and that is important at so many scales—at the scale of the life of an individual, the life of a worker—but also, it’s what’s at stake right now. So much of the built environment is produced without our consent.

JM: Antagonism is a tool. It’s not the goal, because you have to set the goal. What do you want for your working life? How do you want to define the way that your office works and the way that you show up in that work? Then antagonism is part of the way that you can get there. That’s always why in union drives, usually the first move is to ask for voluntary recognition. Voluntary recognition that your workers would like to have their relationship defined and would like to have a seat at the table, in terms of negotiation.

Now, whether principals or bosses accept that offer for voluntary recognition is on them. When they reject the invitation to do that, then they invite greater struggle. Again, it’s a sequence of strategies to get towards that goal, to get towards that contract.

NYRA: How does an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) fit into the equation?

JM: Well, the thing is that ESOPs don’t preclude unions. It’s like having health insurance doesn’t preclude unions. It’s a benefit that you can bargain for. If you go for an ESOP as a way to preclude a union, what power differential has changed, in terms of the voice or the say that workers have in their own conditions? If you belong to an ESOP and you have equity in the firm now, has it changed your hours?

It’s not something that should be seen as an opposition to, or an alternative to unionization. Because when you look at it in terms of power, or if you look at it in terms of decision-making or negotiating, it doesn’t give a worker the capacity to have more of a say in those conditions.

RM: I would emphasize that ESOPs are not bad things. They’re a great benefit that I wish my old company had. Elisa, what place does unionized labor find in what the Green New Deal working group does within the Architecture Lobby?

EI: It goes back to this question of the table of negotiation. Many of us are unhappy with our own work, not just because of the long hours and the bad pay, but because we often see how the work that we do as architects participates in the climate crisis.

The more we work together, the more we bring to light the fact that these things should be negotiated, and that we actually have to give our consent. If every architect decided, “You know what? I don’t want to build any luxury condos anymore,” that act of refusal would throw a huge wrench into the machine of real estate. We have an enormous amount of power, but because our livelihoods are wrapped up in those real estate engines, often we feel helpless.

Acts of refusal are going to be really important. The more we find our power and the more we center ourselves in an idea of collectivity and agency through that collectivity, the more chance we’re going to have to make an impact vis-à-vis the climate.

JM: What the Green New Deal working group does is make architectural knowledge and architectural expertise visible as having a public benefit. Oftentimes, your average person has no idea what role architecture could play in their lives.

I ask my students all the time, “If you go to your parents and you ask them what they need a doctor for, they can tell you. They can tell you what they need a lawyer for, if they need one. If you ask them what they need an architect for, they’re like, “I don’t…”

At the same time, thinking about organized labor and the question of policy, look at the nurses in the Service Employees International Union influencing health care policy. Look at the Chicago Teachers Union in play influencing education policy.

That’s possible because of this organized power. I think that it’s interesting to see the Green New Deal working group already showing us the influence that organized labor within the architectural sector could have over policy, which is huge.

EI: When we lobby lawmakers, we introduce ourselves to them in that way. We tell them we are not speaking from self-interest. In fact, what we’re saying is going to work against the economic model of the industry. There’s no one else willing to say it.

JM: To be clear, the current economic model isn’t even working for architects right now. I think it’s a common narrative to say that unions come in and they destroy the profitability of the private sector. If you look into the way that architects are paid and the way that they’re worked, there’s a reliance on labor abuse in order to produce the built environment. It’s very clear that this economic model that we have right now is not in service, even to the principals.

RM: When you frame a future based on our current economic model, that goes against the entire idea of the Green New Deal, which is federal funds. It’s about public investment. It’s about changing the economic paradigm of building, of energy, of infrastructure. The current economic model becomes irrelevant because we’re shaping something new.

EI: Yeah, that’s the hope. Let’s make it irrelevant.

NYRA: The people who were part of the union drive at SHoP are not all licensed architects. The union and the licensure—actually, they’re independent. Is a union agnostic to licensure?

JM: I think the union is also an understanding of all the types of labor that it takes to pull off an architectural project.

RM: As a document controller at a large firm, I was an admin employee appended to a technical team in construction administration. That is to say replaceable, interchangeable. Often the partners didn’t know me personally, even though I was putting their stamp on thousands of drawings.

An architectural union is compelling to me as an architectural worker who’s not an architect and will not be an architect. There’s no organization that represents me at work, obviously, but also is lobbying for my interests, especially once I say, “I don’t want to become an architect.”

NYRA: Are any of you part of a union now?

EI: As a professor at The Cooper Union, I’m part of a union there. I participated in the most recent contract negotiation. One of the big victories that the union won is about uncompensated hours in academia. We just won compensation for committee work, and that’s huge, actually. Unions can be extremely powerful. You can make demands and you can win.

Rio Morales is an architectural worker and member of the Architecture Lobby’s New York chapter.

Jess Myers is an assistant professor of architecture at The Rhode Island School of Design and the former costeward of the Architecture Lobby’s New York chapter.

Elisa Iturbe is an assistant professor of architecture at The Cooper Union. She is the co-coordinator of the Green New Deal working group within the Architecture Lobby.

This article appeared in our February 2022 Issue, #26. Click here to purchase a copy. Click here to receive the current and future issues.