"Why do so many architects think they are more privileged than they really are?"

Architects should finally acknowledge that the profession is no longer a guaranteed route to prosperity and unionise, writes Phineas Harper.

We’ve all met them: architecture graduates up to their eyeballs in debt, paying two thirds of their income in rent, and effectively earning less than minimum wage but who still identify as “middle class”. Why, despite being saddled with low pay and crushing hours, do so many architects think they are more privileged than they really are?

Though privately educated nepo babies with family wealth and connections dominate many top jobs in the sector, the vast majority of people working in architecture are not rich. Most are ordinary state-school grads; many have no savings and high workloads and would quickly find themselves destitute if they were no longer able to sell their labour to make ends meet.

Whether they identify with the label or not, most architects are workers

Ultimately, whether they identify with the label or not, most architects are workers.

Despite this, trade unionism in the profession is low. In Britain a dedicated union, Section of Architectural Workers (SAW), launched in 2019, recently joining forces with Unite, while in the US architects can sign up with one of multiple unions. However, though membership grants employees access to support when facing down dodgy employers, the vast majority of architects on both sides of the Atlantic are not in unions.

Though RIBA membership costs twice as much as SAW and doesn’t come with free legal help, thousands more architects opt to join the more expensive royal institute than their trade union.

“The foundation of this industry was rich men who didn’t care if they were making money,” Brooklyn-based architect and union organiser Andrew Daley tells me. He argues that the profession’s upper-class history still affects how practitioners identify and which professional bodies they join today.

“The demographics have shifted, but many architects still don’t think of themselves as workers. People say, ‘We don’t deserve a union, we’re too educated, we’re too bougie.’ Those things can sometimes be true, but none of them mean that we don’t deserve basic legal protection.”

Individual union membership provides safeguards against bad treatment from employers but is only really useful as a form of last-ditch crisis insurance. The far more strategic way to improve working conditions in the long term is for multiple staff at a single practice to all join the same union and adopt a recognition agreement.

Architecture is lightyears behind other sectors

Recognition agreements are simple contracts committing employers to working with a union on behalf of their staff, setting out how the two organisations will collaborate and communicate. Typically they include commitments on how each party will work through key decisions together.

According to the UK’s Community Trade Union, workplaces with union recognition agreements have eight per cent higher pay on average.

“Union recognition allows workers to be much more effective,” says SAW coordinator Jake Arnfield. “It means you don’t just have to react when things go wrong, but can negotiate proactively, improving conditions at your workplace for the future.”

Well drafted, recognition agreements give managers a structured way to consult with their teams, and offer employees the chance to contribute positively to decision-making. Yet despite the benefits, architecture is lightyears behind other sectors in adopting them. Only one architecture firm in the US has taken the plunge, and in Britain there has never been a single recognition agreement between a private architecture practice and a trade union.

Some myopic managers fear that signing a recognition agreement will give their staff too much influence over the business, but this is wrong-headed. All employees have a vested interest in helping their employers to succeed, and the more staff are empowered to have a meaningful voice in decision-making, the stronger that vested interest becomes.

Progressive managers who want their businesses to succeed in the long term should understand that union recognition is not a threat to their operations, but an opportunity to build a more sustainable workplace culture.

Too many architects still suffer under ludicrously long hours, unpaid overtime and other workplace issues

While I was chief executive of Open City, at the request of the staff the charity adopted a voluntary union recognition agreement with Independent Workers of Great Britain that proved hugely beneficial. Within a year of signing, the union had helped us craft a much-improved pay policy and think through challenging ethical issues. Fiddly tasks that would have previously fallen to already-stretched managers were instead shared out more equitably – win-win!

Good employers who care about the ideas and welfare of their staff have nothing to fear from adopting a recognition agreement. In 2022 Bernheimer Architecture in New York made history by becoming the first American private sector architecture firm to voluntarily adopt a recognition agreement with its staff. The firm won positive media coverage as a result, and an instant reputation for being a good employer which is translating into new work.

Even at less enlightened practices where sceptical managers may at first refuse to voluntarily sign up to union recognition, it is relatively easy to twist their arm. In Britain, staff at any company with more than 20 employees can force their bosses to recognise a union if a majority of the team are up for it by following a simple statutory process. In the US workers only need 30 per cent to vote in favour.

Though many practices are good employers, too many architects still suffer under ludicrously long hours, unpaid overtime and other workplace issues all directly linked to the chronic lack of recognition agreements in the sector. There is no shame in admitting that an architecture degree is simply not the guaranteed route to middle-class prosperity that it once was, but as workers acting alongside colleagues, architects still have the power to improve the profession for the benefit of everyone.

The formula is simple: join a union, get a recognition agreement. Form follows fair pay!

Phineas Harper is the former chief executive of Open City. They were previously chief curator of the 2019 Oslo Architecture Triennale, deputy director of the Architecture Foundation and deputy editor of the Architectural Review. In 2017 they co-founded New Architecture Writers, a programme for aspiring design critics from under-represented backgrounds.

The photo is courtesy of UVW-SAW.

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