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New York Architecture Firm Forms Industry's First-Ever Union

1490 Southern Blvd. in the Bronx, a 100% affordable housing development designed by Bernheimer Architecture.

A New York-based architecture firm has become the first private sector company in the industry to form a labor union.

A two-year-long campaign from employees at Bernheimer Architecture, a 22-member firm specializing in affordable housing and residential buildings, resulted in the formation of a labor union Thursday, The New York Times reported. The firm voluntarily recognized the union, which will join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Although architects in the U.S. frequently work long hours and have lower average pay than other corners of commercial real estate, no other private sector architecture firm has succeeded in forming an employee union until yesterday, the Times reported.

“We know that architecture is a discipline and profession that has a legacy of exploitation. I am of the opinion that one possible way for things to improve is for educators and professionals to show that they value the people who make all of our architecture happen,” Bernheimer Architecture principal Andrew Bernheimer told the Times. “I truly believe it makes our place better, that we’ll provide better architecture.”

A high-profile drive from staffers at SHoP Architects, the firm responsible for designing the Barclays Center and 111 West 57th St. supertall, failed in February just months after unionization plans were first announced. Many SHoP employees said they frequently worked an average of 50 hours per week, and often up to 70 when deadlines were close. 

While architects with less than a decade of experience can earn low six-figure salaries, only a handful of workers earn over $200K per year, the Times reported. The profession also has ongoing education and licensing requirements, adding more mandatory working hours for architects.

One of the industrywide issues the organizing architects hope to change is the way clients value their work. Architects are reportedly often asked to perform work for clients not included in contracts, such as the weeks-long process of preparing proposals, while firms feel pressure to offer some services at discounted prices.

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, told Bisnow during the SHoP union drive that she predicts more professional services firms will see their staffs organize.

“Can it spread? I would think so,” Nussbaum said in January. “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."