The architecture profession is often glamorized as a creative and lucrative job where individual designers get their names tied to monumental construction projects. The truth is that an individual’s effort, even their whole team’s collaborative work, is attributed uniformly to the firm.
A junior architect’s workweek runs between 40-60 hours, and these skilled professionals usually come out of school with an average debt of $40,000 and salaries insufficient for paying the debt off. Competitive management culture has firms promising clients accelerated deadlines for projects that design teams can’t meet and are compelled to put in more hours without overtime.
This may soon change, though, with the growing movement of collective bargaining among architects.
Skilled labor demanding fair conditions
Emboldened by unionizing successes for workers at Amazon and Starbucks, workers at renowned SHoP Architects announced in December a plan to unionize under Architectural Workers United, the first major labor push for collective bargaining in the building design industry since 1971. The push faded by February when workers’ official bid was pulled, but the movement for architect unions are continuing with other firms.
“There’s definitely been an awakening in the field following the SHoP campaign,” said Maya Porath, a national organizer for the Architecture Lobby, a nonprofit that supports labor within the architecture industry, to Bloomberg. “We’ve been fielding questions about campaigns from all over.”
The thrust of the movement aims to change certain common and unfair practices among architecture firms. They want to get rid of unpaid design competitions, which essentially praise free work, and unpaid internships and overtime. They want no honors for architects who don’t acknowledge staff. They want wage transparency and the formal formation of an architect union.
While architects in labor unions have been flagging in the recent past, decreasing from 18 percent in 2020 to 17 percent, leaders from the movement and the Bureau of Labor Statistics believe collective bargaining is poised for a major comeback. The successful formation of a union could ripple across the industry which the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates as 127,000 architects and 23,000 landscape architects.
The movement is fighting a deeply ingrained culture of high standards of work and long hours. “If you are not committed to doing that extra work, your main work is in jeopardy,” Priyanka Shah, an architect with the architect lobby, said to Bloomberg. “You won’t have 40 hours if you’re not willing to do the 60.”
But some of the largest architecture firms are employee-owned and recognize the troubles in the industry, seeking to address at least one problem with employee stock ownership plans. Among these are Gensler, Zaha Hadid Architects, and SHoP. While there is a big cultural change that needs to happen, many in the architecture industry believe the time has never been better for a collective bargaining movement.