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Architects At Major Firm Pushing To Unionize. Why Real Estate 'Should Be Worried'

Late last month, staffers at New York City-based architecture firm SHoP Architects announced that well over half of their eligible colleagues signed cards pledging their support for a union, which would make it the first such organizing effort at a private U.S. architecture firm in decades.

SHoP Architects designed Midtown Center in Washington, D.C., the new headquarters for Fannie Mae.

The organizers have formed an organization called Architecture Workers United and seek to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

“Many of us feel pushed to the limits of our productivity and mental health,” they wrote in a letter to firm leaders that was also sent to The New York Times. “SHoP is the firm that can begin to enact changes that will eventually ensure a more healthy and equitable future.”

Karen Nussbaum, a longtime labor leader who served as the director of the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau during the Clinton administration, described the movement as “people who thought they were going into a labor of love and found they weren’t being loved back.” 

This push by professional workers to organize symbolizes a number of dynamics at play in the workforce, especially within highly credentialed members of the architecture, construction and engineering world. It underscores how younger adult workers today view unions and expect more from their employers.

Whether it’s through workplace organizing and labor drives, favoring firms with similar values, or pushing for more inclusion and social responsibility from employers, millennials and younger staff expect something different from their careers and employers than previous generations. 

At the same time, widespread dissatisfaction with working conditions has contributed to a number of high-profile union drives at firms like Amazon and Starbucks, as well as record-high rates of attrition. New Labor Department figures released Tuesday found that a record 4.5 million workers quit in November, with 10.6 million job openings. A Wall Street Journal analysis found there are two workers for every three openings, reinforcing how worker-friendly the labor market is.

There has been a significant push in the last five years to organize professional groups, starting with wildcat teacher strikes in 2018, and now growing to encompass professions as diverse as veterinary workersvideo game developerslibrarians, and even graduate students — 3,000 Columbia University grad students have been picketing for weeks.

Research from Cornell found that there were over 300 labor strikes and other actions in 2021, and despite a long-term decline in union membership in recent decades, public approval of unions hit 68%, according to a September Gallup poll.

Jennifer Dorning, the president of the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees, said millennials’ positive attitudes toward unions and an increase in media coverage of union drives has created a “cascading effect” resulting in more union drives and workplace activism. 

In the UK, Zaha Hadid Architects recently announced the transition to employee ownership, and a lead organizer in the SHoP union drive said to the Times he is working with two other firms where employees have also been organizing for union votes. After publication, SHoP Architects sent the following statement:

“SHoP was founded to practice architecture differently and has always been interested in empowering and supporting our staff. To secure that mission and future leadership for the firm, in March 2021, SHoP through the ESOP process became a 100-percent employee-owned company—furthering our shared commitment to a culture of innovation and the next-generation practice of architecture.”

In addition, the American Institute of Architects also sent Bisnow the following statement post-publication:

“The American Institute of Architects has deep and active interest in equity throughout the profession, and is committed to enhancing the work life, employment, and practice culture of architectural firms and employees at all stages of their careers. We are working to strengthen and promote equity, diversity, and inclusion practices in the profession and that is reflected in a wide range of resources available on our website today. We will share our findings and our actions in the future as more become available.”

“This generation isn’t willing to sit back and wait and see if things get better, and have talked with older generations and know that working conditions and pay won’t improve and have been stagnant for decades,” Dorning said.

Barclays Center in Brooklyn, a famous design by SHoP Architects, currently in the midst of a union drive.

While the complaints of low compensation and long hours aren’t new, workers seeking union representation have even more power in the workplace today, due to the tight labor market. It’s made them more assertive and confident about organizing, Dorning said.

Labor groups have previously talked about targeting both engineers and architects, she said, so she wouldn’t be surprised if engineering firms face similar pressure. The American Institute of Architects didn’t respond to Bisnow's requests for a statement on the union effort. 

The demands by SHoP architects, and some of the slogans highlighted in the organizing drive, including “Because the industry won’t pay my student loans” and “Because the environment deserves better care than my exhaustion,” speak to the compensation and social justice concerns of employees.

One of the core concerns the staff noted was increased diversity and inclusion, an issue that both architecture and the larger commercial real estate industry have struggled with, and one that young hires consider a key metric by which to judge a potential employer.  

Dorning, who has been involved in organizing for a decade, said only in the last few years have organizers been pushing for things like diverse hiring quotas and compensation reviews to guarantee more opportunity for traditionally marginalized groups and pay equity. 

Nussbaum, the founding director of Working America, who has been organizing since the 1970s, believes the architecture workers’ union efforts fit into a larger movement among healthcare workers, like those who went on strike against Kaiser Permanente: highly credentialed, high-value employees who feel they’re earning less than they expected and want “raises, rights and respect.”

If the SHoP effort ends with a victory for organizers, Dorning and Nussbaum expect to see many more such drives, as well as a targeted effort by organized labor at architecture firms. 

“Can it spread? I would think so,” Nussbaum said. “There’s nothing that holds it at bay if workers are getting paid market value, but not what they feel they’re worth. The housing and real estate industry should be worried.”

UPDATE, JAN. 5, 12:30 P.M. ET: This story has been updated with a comment from the American Institute of Architects.

UPDATE, JAN. 5, 6 P.M. ETThis story has been updated with a comment from SHoP.