Unionization at SHoP Architects stalled out, but architecture’s labor movement is far from over

Bargaining for Better

Unionization at SHoP Architects stalled out, but architecture’s labor movement is far from over

The Woolworth Building in lower Manhattan, where SHoP Architects is headquartered (Mobilus In Mobili/Via Wikimedia Commons, accessed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Earlier today, the bargaining unit aiming to unionize at SHoP Architects suddenly pulled its petition to organize from the National Labor Relation Board. In a statement posted to Instagram, the group of employees, formally known as Architectural Workers United (AWU), claimed that “a powerful anti-union campaign” had eroded the support it had built up over the past year.

“At this time, after internal meetings and messaging from leadership, a number of SHoP employees have expressed a preference for an alternative way to address the issues that have been brought to light,” the statement read. “We do not yet know what that will look like, and we do regret that pulling the petition removes the opportunity to vote democratically, but we feel compelled to honor all voices and the current majority opinion.”

A spokesperson for SHoP told AN that the decision to stop pursuing the petition “reflects our staff’s clear desire to determine our collective future together as an employee-owned firm. Any allegations of bad faith campaigning are unfounded and an attempt to undermine the strong majority of SHoP employees who made their views known.”

SHoP’s principals didn’t respond to a request for comment on the unionizing effort prior to today’s announcement and have given no further explanation on how it will appease the problems raised by employees. The firm is among a number of design companies that have recently rolled out employee stock ownership plans, a retirement benefit set up by means of an ownership trust. Others include Zaha Hadid Architects, IA Interior Architects, and Design Workshop.

“It’s disappointing obviously, but the movement continues on,” said Andrew Daley, a former SHoP employee of seven years who recently began a role as an associate organizer at The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the global trade union that the collective from AWU aimed to affiliate with. “The SHoP workers have to do what is best for them and we respect that…. This movement was never intended to be about one office alone.”

An architect from one of the other firms working to organize through AWU said the SHoP outcome means they’ll have to be all the more aggressive in their approach to garnering extra support within their office. “It hasn’t demoralized us,” he said, “but the news is making us realize that firms will use union-busting tactics to intimidate the most vulnerable at offices.”

AWU first made their intentions to organize known in a New York Times article that shed light on the issue of labor rights within the profession. The piece, which was published on December 21, introduced the average reader to the plight of architects: they are underpaid, overworked, given little time off, and not a lot of credit for their highly technical and creative work. The pathways for career development and advancement are also murky for many.

But these problems aren’t new to those within the profession, and the pandemic, in many ways, made worse what many new-to-mid-level designers and project managers once faced in the office. Work-from-home policies are still in place at many firms and some architects feel their work ethic and dedication to the practice go virtually unseen as managers can’t physically monitor their productivity. Not only that, the expectation to “always be online” has been heightened and the boundaries for communication blurred.

“The pandemic created a situation of way more slippage,” Daley said. “None of it was intentional or done malefically. It just further cemented some systemic issues and started a more organic conversation about how teams are actually working.”

COVID-19 wasn’t the only catalyst that sparked the movement. It was also the racial reckoning the country faced after the murder of George Floyd—a moment that woke many employers up to the diversity problems within their own organizations and across all industries. The influx of avowals made on social media and the letters of support firms issued days after the event demonstrated that architectural leaders were paying attention.

But it’s been a year-and-a-half since then and many architects interviewed for this article revealed that the intentional and transparent conversations on diversity, equity, and inclusion started by firm leaders in the summer of 2020 have all but stopped. One designer from an international firm based in Brooklyn said having union representation might eventually help with implicit bias in the field, allowing people from different socio-economic backgrounds the chance to work at the industry’s most respected firms—even those that show favoritism for Ivy League graduates.

Of all the architecture firms in New York, according to Daley, it’s significant that employees from a prominent and sizable, design-forward firm like SHoP were the first to try bargaining for a more equitable work environment. “The firm talks about being innovative in the industry,” he said. “Why not be innovative about the ways in which workers are treated?”

With SHoP’s unit pulling their petition to unionize, it’s now up to the two other New York firms that are in talks with the Machinists union and AWU to take this first step. They agreed only to speak on background for this article, but both expect to announce their intentions publicly this year.

The goals of AWU are threefold: In the short term, they want to gain recognition from one of these firms and start a transparent conversation about the employees’ priorities. In the long term, they want to carve a path for industry workers to unionize at their own firms and create density in the field. Finally, they hope such a movement will force the federal government to enact legislative changes that promise better wages—including overtime compensation—and more healthy workplace practices.

In order to form a legally recognized union, a minimum of 30 percent of employees have to sign union cards, first creating a bargaining unit. It’s standard practice, however, that units’ aim for above 60 percent support before filing a petition to organize. An employer has to voluntarily recognize the staff’s decision or the National Labor Relations Board will administer a secret ballot election in which the unit needs above 50 percent of votes plus one to win. From there, representatives from the union will then enter contract negotiations with the employer to address the unit’s top concerns. All parties must vote to accept and ratify the contract or else negotiations will continue.

The bargaining unit at SHoP initially expected silence from the firm’s partners. One senior-level project director involved in the bargaining unit told AN that the group provided a letter to management on Dec. 20 before the Times piece was published, saying:

We have grown accustomed to unsustainable practices such as endless overtime and deadlines which result in burnout and a lack of work-life balance. We have accepted the lack of value of the architect within the building industry. We have normalized the exploitation of our time and our talent.

Dezeen later printed the letter in full. AN has on record from AWU that the partners hired a law firm to discourage the effort, a common maneuver from employers. SHoP denies the claim.

Members of the former bargaining unit at SHoP and the other firms trying to organize are aware that their employers fear this process and understand the implications it may have on their reputation among clients. But they want the message of “it’s not us versus them” to be clear. “It’s critical they understand that this comes from our care for the industry,” two designers from another firm told AN on a call. “Our bosses have noted in the past that they want to do better but they’ve been pushed into situations where they can’t do better. We want to help them achieve their goal.”

Arguably, the biggest threat to unraveling the systemic issues faced by the industry are the Sherman Antitrust Laws that prevent monopolies across the private business sector. In 1972 and 1990, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) underwent two antitrust proceedings that solidified the nature of industry work today: architects compete for fees for free with no discussion of payment or bid winning, or else they’d be charged with collusion for “price-fixing.”

According to Peggy Deamer, founder of The Architecture Lobby, an advocacy group that’s been vying for unionization within the profession for years, there’s another way to work around these laws. A third party, such as a university, she said, could suggest standard wage minimums for the industry. “That would take the willingness of all firm owners to confirm, knowing it supports the industry as a whole,” she said. “But firm owners are so indoctrinated with competition that they tend to think that approach is scary and unnatural.”

Some architects consulted for this piece worry about this option, citing the culture of overwork in firms today as a direct result of how architecture is taught in schools. AWU hopes changing legislation will have a trickle-down effect on curricula and studio structures. “It really does start in school,” said one architect. “We’re taught there that we’re not workers, we’re artists that create abstract things.”

The last and only time architecture employees were part of a labor union was from 1933 to 1947. As recovery projects began during the Great Depression, the AIA “undersold” the value of architecture work to the federal government and the Union of the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists and Technicians formed against it.

When asked about the formation of a 21st-century union within the field, the AIA wouldn’t answer directly. Instead, a representative said via email that the AIA “has deep and active interest in equity throughout the profession, and is committed to enhancing the work life, employment, and practice culture of architecture firms and employees at all stages of their careers.”

With other “white-collar” professionals such as journalists and museum and tech workers looking to unionize, members of AWU are still hopeful that change in the design industry is just around the corner. Their awareness campaign is spreading rapidly firm-to-firm and across social media, giving them confidence that just because SHoP’s employees are no longer on the path to unionize another group at another firm soon will.

“If it does happen here,” said an architect at one of the firms soon to announce its bargaining unit, “it will be a very, very powerful thing. All eyes are on this company.”