Far from being a white-collar oasis, architects work under grueling conditions — which is why some are now trying to unionize. We spoke to an architect and union organizer about labor’s new efforts to organize the industry.
In 2021, workers at SHoP, a New York architecture firm, filed for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union election with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. They felt overworked (Curbed reported on a SHoP worker who “was hospitalized with pneumonia after working a 110-hour week and felt pressured to work while his wife was in the middle of childbirth”), and some of them carried a heavy load of student debt. They wanted a collective avenue of redress and a means to stabilize their work lives. The Architecture Lobby, a nonprofit that advocates for reform within the industry, has existed for nearly a decade, but SHoP was poised to become the first private sector architectural firm to unionize since the 1940s.
The backlash was swift. According to the workers, SHoP management launched an anti-union campaign, hiring prime union-busting law firm Proskauer Rose LLP to craft the strategy. Management warned of losing clients and instituted an employee stock-ownership program (ESOP) that, while not providing a seat at the table or say over the direction of the firm, functioned as a wedge, peeling off support for the union by distributing company profits to workers in the form of company shares. It worked: fearing that it would lose the union election were it to go through with it, the SHoP union withdrew its petition in February of 2022.
Andrew Daley was one of the SHoP workers who supported the union. During the campaign, Daley decided to make a change: he quit his job at SHoP and joined the Machinists as a full-time organizer. Since joining, Daley has assisted workers at Bernheimer Architecture, another New York–based firm, in winning voluntary union recognition. Earlier this week, another campaign went public, with employees at Snøhetta, a high-end firm, filing for an NLRB election.
Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to Daley about the SHoP campaign, the biggest issues facing architects, and his hopes for the current organizing efforts. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
ALEX N. PRESS
You’re a full-time union organizer for the Machinists now, but you were an architect until recently. How did you decide to go all in on trying to organize the sector?
I’m a licensed architect in the state of New York and have practiced in four different states. I’ve been in the profession for twelve years, with experience at big and small firms. I’ve been an independent contractor, I’ve done construction. I’ve worked in lots of different environments. At those places, I’ve tried to agitate for better conditions for myself and people around me, whether that was by talking one-on-one to the owner or through committees or working groups. I had familiarity with unions, particularly from friends who are writers, but I think I had a sort of NIMBY [“not in my backyard”] attitude like, “I love this, it’s great for everybody, but I just can’t see that as a possibility for architecture.”
In the summer of 2020 at the firm that I had then been at for around six years, we were rethinking firm policies on equity and diversity. We met with hesitation, an attitude of, “We’re doing the best that we can.” Then, they laid a bunch of people off in September of 2020. At that point, a few people, not myself, started connecting with organizers and talking about the possibility of unionizing so that even if we couldn’t stop layoffs, we could build a structure for them.
I was brought into that conversation a few months after that, when there were about ten people in the group. We organized for another nine months after that, and I wound up leaving a little bit before the campaign went public right before Christmas of 2021. I was considering a shift to the public sector, but the Machinists asked if I’d be interested in becoming an organizer. I hadn’t thought that was a possibility, but I couldn’t pass it up.
When the SHoP campaign went public, they had about 65 percent of workers supporting the union, and then there was another round of layoffs. Morale was low. But they filed. Ultimately, the firm ran a heavy anti-union campaign, and the workers pulled their petition, because a lot of the tactics started working.
After that, the question was, what do we want to do at this point? We’d had a big push, we had thousands of followers on an Instagram that we hadn’t expected to get that kind of attention. People were interested in what was happening and devastated by the fact that it had failed. But a number of groups had reached out about organizing, and without exception they still felt they needed to unionize. One group in particular was the Bernheimer Architecture group, which included one member from the SHoP campaign who had been laid off and taken a job there afterward.
There are around a dozen more firms where we’ve had some conversations. My point being: there is a lot of interest.
Bernheimer went public in September of 2022 and got voluntary recognition. Now, we have around eight to twelve active campaigns (though of course, some of those might go dark, hit plateaus, and so on).
ALEX N. PRESS
Are all of these firms in New York?
No, but the epicenter is here. A lot of that has to do with the critical mass of architecture in New York. Plus, there’s always been an ethos that the only place to make a decent living in architecture is in New York, which is a backward assumption: most of the architects I know in other cities weren’t making that much less than I was but had a way cheaper cost of living.
So New York has a big concentration of architects and also the worst working conditions, which explains why these efforts took off here. But we’re talking to groups in Los Angeles, San Francisco, one in the Midwest, a firm with offices across the country. That’s exciting, because if this were just in New York, or at one type of profile of work, I’d think we didn’t have as good of a read on the industry as I’d have hoped. But instead, it’s all over the map in terms of location, size, and discipline. These are systemic issues throughout the industry that need to be addressed in a systemic way.
ALEX N. PRESS
For people who might not be familiar with the architecture world, can you explain what you mean when you refer to different types and echelons of work?
I don’t want to use the term “starchitect,” but there are famous firms in the field. These aren’t identifying the firms we’re working with, but some famous firms would be Zaha Hadid, the SHoPs of the world, Bjarke Ingles, SOM, and Frank Gehry — high-profile people who a lay person may be familiar with. But the ones we are actually working with: some are doing mega-developments, some are doing high-rise luxury residential, some are small-scale retail interiors, some do really institutional work, some do government work, some do massive governmental and infrastructural planning. It’s not any one kind of work — it’s all kinds.
ALEX N. PRESS
So you went through the SHoP campaign as a worker, and you referred to the anti-union campaign that peeled off enough support that the union ended up withdrawing the NLRB petition. What have you and the Machinists learned from that so it doesn’t end that way going forward?
As much as there are similarities in how each industry fights unions, there are also differences in tactics, and now that we’ve seen it in this industry, we know what to expect. We assume firms that don’t want this to happen will follow SHoP’s playbook. We can learn from how it played out. We’re open with every group about what they might expect.
We also tell those groups that they’re going to have to call out their employers. Firms should know that if they’re going to break the law and pressure their employees rather than respect their rights, workers will put it in the press and make what is happening clear to the public. Public perception shifting on the campaign helps make those anti-union tactics stop. We will make things public, we will file unfair labor practice (ULP) charges.
Another thing we’ve thought a lot about is the path that the Bernheimer group laid of voluntary recognition and a collaborative environment with their owner. We aren’t steering the ship in the negotiations at that firm; we’re a fly on the wall advising, but it’s about what they want in their workplace collectively. Do I think any of the firms that have big corporate structures and an ethos about being a corporation will offer voluntary recognition? No. But do I think that firms that are still owned by founding partners, or even the next generation of partners that may understand that they have something to gain here? Yes, it’s possible.
The Conde Nast group is another model, where they didn’t file for a union election, but they knew they had support and figured out other ways of putting pressure on management. It might be harder to replicate that within an industry where there’s no union density, but it’s an interesting strategy.
ALEX N. PRESS
Do you think what happened at Bernheimer could be replicable at other firms?
Yes. In one way, Andy Bernheimer is incredibly unique in how he thinks about himself, how he thinks about his practice, and how he thinks about labor overall compared to a lot of other firm owners. That being said, it’s also not that different from any other firm. It’s a twenty-person firm; there are tons of twenty-person firms throughout the country and definitely in New York. Maybe the Bernheimer playbook doesn’t work when we’re talking about a two thousand–person firm that has offices all around the world, but even up to a hundred and fifty employees, it’s something that we can point to. And Bernheimer is going to set the standard in the industry with its contract; it’s going to be the only contract of a private sector architecture firm, so that’s something to follow too.
ALEX N. PRESS
Some of the shops you’re working with are small, and the first thing an employer will cite to oppose a union is the competitive pressure in the industry. What’s your plan to handle bargaining and winning multiple first contracts when these shops get union recognition?
We make it abundantly clear to everybody that their salaries are not going to double overnight. The first contract might only get minimal gains in terms of salary increases. But what we are going to be able to get is a lot of noneconomic things and protections that, frankly, don’t exist right now.
Another thing that we are going to be pushing is policies that in one sense are economic but in another sense are disincentives for working a lot of overtime. The model of the industry is, “I have all exempt workers, so I don’t have to pay them overtime. I’m getting pinched in every direction in terms of my fee, and the only way to make it all back is to require my staff to do excessive amounts of unpaid overtime.” That’s what we’re conditioned to do from day one in architecture school.
What that overlooks is the amount of inefficiency that happens within those hours of work that a client never sees and doesn’t care about, from internal miscommunication, to back-and-forth between multiple different partners reviewing a project, to redoing things not necessarily in the name of a better product. If we put in lots of disincentives in contracts (and it might not be time and a half right away, and it might not be forty hours right away), but if we build in structures to guard against it, we’re giving time back to all of the employees, because most firms are going to say, “Well, we can’t afford to pay the overtime.” So then we’re all in agreement: let’s make sure it doesn’t happen. That’s the biggest one to me because it trickles down to everything else.
ALEX N. PRESS
The last time there were private sector architects joining unions in the United States was the 1930s. Unemployment in the sector was a key issue back then. With these recent campaigns, a lot of architects have mentioned overtime as a major issue. Is that what is driving this push now, or are there other problems?
A lot of things are driving it. Being an at-will employee itself is soul crushing. I’ve been laid off. I was tapped on the shoulder and asked, “Hey, do you have a minute?” This was at a three-person fabrication studio and it wasn’t like, “Here’s two weeks’ notice.” It was, “Go home now.” That was a unique situation, but it’s not uncommon, not only in architecture of course, but in this field, there’s very little severance, and what you get is not commensurate with the rest of the market. So not only can you be dismissed at will, but you’re not set up to do anything on the flip side of that, which leads you to rush into something new to stay afloat.
A lot of issues that people talk about come back to uncompensated overtime. Burnout is directly related to hours. Work-life balance is directly related to hours. How much you’re getting paid is directly related to hours: if you’re getting paid an okay salary, but then you amortize that out over your hourly rate, which is 25 or 50 percent overtime, all of a sudden that wage doesn’t look so good.
ALEX N. PRESS
There are some stereotypes about architects, though The Fountainhead may be responsible for that. Are there actual peculiarities to this work or this type of worker, be they ideological or something to do with the job itself?
The general public does perceive architects a certain way, as frustrated geniuses toiling away, trying to get the world to understand their singular brilliance. The idea is that it’s an individual pursuit, and if you’re just good enough and work hard enough at it, then everyone will see you for what you are — that’s how people see Frank Lloyd Wright, for example.
But what we miss is that he had hundreds of employees. We never talk about Wright’s workers. And not only that: he started a school so that he could not only have workers, but have people pay to apprentice under him. So even when we think about this romantic time, the stereotype wasn’t true either. We aren’t taught that history, and we are really bad at educating the public about what we do and how much time it actually takes.
ALEX N. PRESS
You changed your life to try to organize a nonunion sector. Is there anything you’d like to say about all of this on a personal level?
I might be the only licensed architect who is doing this full time. A lot of people ask me, “Do you miss architecture? Do you miss design?” In a lot of ways, yes. I miss the camaraderie of it. I miss being collaborative with people on a project. I miss seeing projects come to life.
But in a lot of ways, this is similar. All of these different campaigns are different projects, and I’m helping people get rights that they don’t have now. I feel closer and more connected to the industry than I ever have before. In part, that’s because it’s now my job to be able to connect on these things. But personally, I now have a reasonable work-life balance and a healthy working environment. I don’t think I’ve ever had that in the industry before, and that’s what I want to be able to create for everyone else.
For example, I talk to so many people who are parents who find themselves in a situation where they’ll leave work at six, catch their kids for a little bit, and then log back on for three more hours. That’s soul-crushing. I would love to see it not be like that any longer. That’s what I’m fighting for.
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