Architects are the latest officials to be drawn to unions

For decades, architects have had a place with doctors and lawyers among the professionals most honored by pop culture and future in-laws.

And with good reason. Architects spend many years at school learning their craft, passing grueling licensing exams, spending long days in the office.

Yet there is one key difference between architecture and these other professions: pay. Even with prominent firms in large cities, few architects earn more than $ 200,000 a year, according to the American Institute of Architects, which advocates for the profession. Most people earn barely six figures, if it is a decade or more into their careers.

On Tuesday, employees at the reputable company SHoP Architects said that they were trying to change the formula for long hours for medium pay by taking a step that is almost unheard of in their field. They try to organize.

The organizers at SHoP, which has about 135 employees and is known for its work at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and a luxury building south of Central Park formerly called the Steinway Tower, among other projects, said that well over half of their qualified colleagues had signed short laws support for the association.

They plan to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and ask for voluntary recognition of what appears to be the only union of a prominent private architectural firm in the country.

“Many of us feel pushed to the limits of our productivity and mental health,” the firm’s union supporters, who call themselves Architectural Workers United, wrote in a letter to the firm’s management on Monday. “SHoP is the company that can begin to adopt changes that will ultimately ensure a healthier and fairer future.”

Half a dozen SHoP employees said they worked about 50 hours a week on average, and often 60 to 70 hours when a key deadline approached, usually every month or two. They said this was common even among younger architects and designers earning $ 50,000 to $ 80,000 a year – above what many in other fields earn, but a burden for workers who typically collect tens of thousands of dollars in student debt.

“SHoP was founded to practice architecture differently and has always been interested in empowering and supporting our employees,” the firm said in a statement. The company did not say whether it would recognize the union.

The initial effort extends beyond a single employer. David DiMaria, an organizer for the Engineers’ Union, said he had spoken to architects who were in the process of organizing at two other prominent New York firms, which he declined to identify.

And these campaigns seem to reflect a growing interest in trade unionism among professionals of all kinds. Technical workers, doctors, journalists and academics have all turned to unions over the past decade due to concerns such as loss of autonomy and control over the job, stagnant wages and lower job security.

The squeeze can be especially pronounced in professions that offer great non-financial benefits, whether it is a sense of mission in a non-profit organization or the cultural touch of working with book publishing or TV production. Such companies depend on a framework of young employees who struggle for meager wages and a chance to do so in a prestigious field.

Architecture often combines these threads, say many years of practitioners and scholars, with strict requirements for identification, a priest-like devotion to the mission and a cultural self-importance.

“It’s all this that makes us give in to the ideology that architecture is a vocation, not a career,” said Peggy Deamer, professor emeritus at the Yale School of Architecture.

This mentality has often seduced architects into accepting relatively low salaries, added Professor Deamer, the founder of the Architecture Lobby, an advocacy group with around 300 members, mainly in the United States.

As a practical matter, several architects said, their firms are often too willing to take on unpaid work, making it more difficult to pay employees fairly.

Companies that specialize in custom design, such as SHoP, regularly spend weeks generating proposals for competitions where customers award contracts and for which companies receive little or no pay. And many companies are proposing fees that are too low to support adequate staffing, said several experts in the field.

“People lower their fees, and when you lower your fees – I do not know if it’s a slippery slope, but it’s definitely a slope,” said Andrew Bernheimer, principal at Bernheimer Architecture and an associate professor at Parsons School of Design in New York. .

Architects at SHoP and other firms said that their employers usually solved this contradiction through large amounts of unpaid overtime.

Jennifer Siqueira, an architect who joined the firm in 2017 and was released during a layoff round in November, put down more than 60 hours a week several times while working on plans for a residential building in 2020, she said.

“I would work until midnight, eat dinner in front of the computer,” said Siqueira, who has been involved in union work, during the hectic weeks. She was pregnant and had to “get up to go to the bathroom every 15 to 30 minutes.”

Jeremy Leonard, an architect who also joined the firm in 2017, said he had planned to take time off in the summer of 2020 for an annual vacation with the family, but that a supervisor advised against it due to an important deadline. Mr. Leonard’s solution was to take the trip, but work all the time.

“I stayed in a laundry room for 12 hours a day and came out for an hour for dinner,” said Leonard, who is also involved in the union campaign.

A spokeswoman for SHoP said the company is negotiating the highest fees the market will bear, and that it “went away from several projects this year that we decided would not pay for adequate staffing.” She added that SHoP seeks to keep workers employed long-term instead of employees up for specific projects and lay off people when they quit, as some competitors do.

The company also said that it had become 100 percent employee-owned this year, but equity shares have not yet been allocated, and employees were skeptical that they would have much more to say in how the company was managed.

The organizational campaign dates back to the autumn of 2020, just after an earlier round of layoffs and as remote work made employees focus on how consuming their jobs were.

A few workers who had held weekly meetings on how to make SHoP more diverse, focused on discussing trade union, something someone had learned about through the architecture lobby.

Several employees said that SHoP’s work practice was better than the norm in the industry – for example, the company pays interns. That they still felt so stressed, the workers said, reflected the depth of the industry’s problems.

OMA, a rival company, recently raised hackles on social media for a job posting that included “No 9-5 mentality.” A former junior architect at the firm said in an interview that he had often left the office at 22.00 or 23.00, and sometimes after kl.

A spokeswoman said the OMA sought to ensure a healthy work-life balance, but that “there is always room for improvement.” The job advertisement was meant to appeal to applicants with creativity and passion, she said, adding that the company removed the phrase “when we saw it interpreted as a code for a requirement to work endless hours.”

Trade union supporters at SHoP said they hoped to negotiate guidelines that could, for example, give workers an hour off after every other hour of overtime. (SHoP currently provides some compensatory leave, but employees say the amounts are small and inconsistent.)

This will require principals and managers to use overtime more sensibly. SHoP employees said that principals often wanted more reproductions when a few would be sufficient, or drawings that were outside the scope of their contract – as a landscape.

Under federal law, employers must pay most paid workers an hour and a half after 40 hours a week if their employees earn less than about $ 35,000 a year. They are generally meant to pay overtime to professionals who earn over this amount if workers have little decision-making power, a provision that working groups say is often ignored.

Phillip Bernstein, an architecture professor at Yale, agreed that pay and hours were a major problem in the profession, but worried that the union would strike back. “I do not think this effort will work, nor do I think it is good for the profession in the long run,” he said in an email.

Professor Bernstein said that an important obstacle for trade unions is the threat that rivals may undercut companies with higher wage costs when they offer work. Over time, he said, trade unions would find it harder to survive.

But union supporters at SHoP claim that if enough companies follow suit, unions can help city or state lawmakers introduce rules that regulate fees and staffing to prevent such undercutting.

While long hours are common, companies that produce relatively standard construction plans sometimes have more humane guidelines, many architects said. But sophisticated design companies often see themselves as artistic companies as much as conventional companies and may have fewer guarantees.

“We are an anomaly in the business world of architecture in that we do not keep track of hours,” Billie Tsien, a founder of the roughly 35-person Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, known for his inventive designs on projects such as the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago, said in an email. She added that employees took time off as needed, and that most stayed for a decade or more.

Companies such as SHoP and OMA are also known for doing imaginative work, but with a higher volume and for more commercial customers, which gives them greater financial influence over the industry. Union supporters believe it puts them in a strong position to reshape workplace norms.

“We are very innovative in much of our office work,” said Danielle Tellez, another SHoP employee involved in the union. “This feels like an extension of our ambition to lead the industry, to innovate in the industry, but for our professional standards.”

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