Architects are unionizing – is the industry paying attention?

Architectural Workers United

Amidst the myriad of challenges defining our time, the imperative for collective action among workers has surged. Next week, the United Auto Workers union will vote whether to authorize a strike against Detroit automakers. As I write this, I am in Los Angeles where hotel workers are striking, and the SAG actors and WGA writers continue to strike. Many of these strikes have made international headlines. Design professionals, however, are not currently unionized, but the Architectural Workers United organization is working to change that.

On December 21st, 2021, the establishment of Architectural Workers United (AWU) ignited a nationwide discourse concerning architectural labor and its value within a system fraught with exploitation. It has slowly been gaining traction ever since. AWU represents a collaborative initiative of architectural professionals hailing from various firms, united in their pursuit to revolutionize the industry through grassroots efforts. Notably, the United States currently lacks a prominent private sector union for architects. While a union briefly existed prior to World War II, the past five decades have seen a void in election activity. Which begs the question…

Why is this and why is it being revitalized now? 

This scarcity of organized labor is juxtaposed against the backdrop of architects, possessing significant training, education, and skills, enduring the realities of unpaid internships, uncompensated overtime, and frequently misclassified employment status, after graduating with mountains of student debt they needed to take on to be credentialed to do their jobs. Traditionally practicing architecture was thought of as a profession reserved for wealthy white men, but the demographics are changing. The architectural field’s historical association with privilege has intensified the profession’s exclusivity, creating barriers to entry and impeding equitable representation. The result: the call for architect unions is growing louder. These systemic issues transcend individual workplaces, but it is AWU’s hope that they can be reshaped through united endeavors.

How to form an architecture union?

On the AWU website, the answer to the question ‘How do we form a union?’ asks a couple more questions about defining goals: What do you love about your work, and want to protect? And what aspect of work do you want to improve? I spoke with Andrew Daley, who practiced architecture for over a decade before becoming a full time organizer for AWU and I asked him those questions. “I’ll answer that in a kind of roundabout way,” he said, “I’m often asked if I miss designing on a daily basis. Yes and no. I miss the collaboration, the problem solving, the creating and bringing someone’s vision to life. I don’t miss the overwork and unpaid overtime.” He laid out plainly what was worth fighting for, while including the disincentives, the reasons to fight for unionization. 

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What has Architectural Workers United accomplished so far?

In 2022, Bernheimer Architecture became the first architecture union in the American private sector. Snøhetta came close to being the second, but the vote to unionize was defeated in a 35 to 29 vote in July, which the AWU believes was the result of engaging the services of Stinson LLP, an anti-union law firm, executing an anti-union campaign leading up to the ultimate vote. Had the effort been successful, the union would have encompassed all workers linked to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, including designers, architects, project leaders, and operations staff. That is part of the AWU’s mission as well, to include everyone who works at a firm in the realm of the built environment, not only the architect. At any given time the AWU has about 10-15 groups of organized architectural workers they are at various points in the unionization process with.

How to get involved?

“First, talk to your coworkers,” Daley says, “talk to them about what they are unhappy with about work and find the things you have in common.” And rather than just commiserate around the water cooler, begin thinking about what might be at play systemically, enabling these problems to exist and grow.
Learn more about AWU and how to get involved here.

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