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From organizing efforts within the bellies of corporate behemoths, to essential workers fighting for fair conditions, to a historic strike wave sweeping through higher education institutions: labor unions would seem to be enjoying greater influence than they have had in many years. But the prevalence of picket lines in the news doesn’t quite track with the realities of workaday life. Union membership in the United States increased by nearly 273,000 workers from 2021 to 2022, but the overall rate of unionization fell to 10.1 percent, the lowest on record. Only six percent of private-sector workers (who make up the vast majority of the US labor force) belong to a union, despite unambiguous improvements in wages and working conditions that unions provide for all workers, unionized or not. Those figures are low in the building trades as well, from the construction industry to, especially, architecture.
Last fall, after years of witnessing fellow workers build structure and build power within their profession, and inspired by a highly publicized but ultimately unsuccessful union drive at another firm, employees at New York City-based Bernheimer Architecture bucked industry trends by forming the country’s only private-sector architecture union. If you’re reading this, you’ve likely noticed a growing interest in their efforts—as well as the conspicuous and vocal support of their boss, Andrew Bernheimer. Formation and formal recognition of the Bernheimer Architecture Union in September 2022, however, was just the beginning of a longer journey. Whether navigating its membership in the larger International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) or the legal minutiae of contract negotiations, the union, in collaboration with Bernheimer’s management, has initiated an ongoing experiment in workplace democracy: at once following a well-worn path, while perhaps charting an entirely novel future for architecture at large. Immediately following their very first bargaining session for a new employment contract, I sat down with union members Emma Costello, Kolby Forbes, Ann Le, and Ayman Rouhani, along with IAMAW labor organizer (and architect) Andrew Daley to see how that experiment has been unfolding. Citymaking is collective work. What if the terms and fruits of that labor were a collective matter, too? – JM
The announcement of your union last fall made a splash within the architecture industry, and certainly caught the attention of some mainstream media outlets as well. I would love to hear a little more about the work that led up to that moment.
We had been having a lot of conversations in the firm since June of 2020 around the George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter. There was already a lot of collective energy talking about our future, how we could be ethical. A lot of our work is affordable housing, and so there was a lot of confidence that unionization was a good fit for the culture of the firm. A lot of us have a lot of investment in making sure we have a healthy workplace.
There had been rumblings in a lot of the field of architecture, especially from the SHoP attempt. The biggest thing that happened in our firm is that someone that was in SHoP before, that was part of that organizing group, started working at our firm and brought it up. We started organizing. It also was from a point of view that this is important to talk about in architecture, and because we thought that we would be supported, it was an easy thing for all of us to come together to ask our employer to recognize our union.
What kind of work did it take to get that buy-in? Did you feel like you had to do convince some people?
We are a fairly small firm. We have personal relationships with each other. That was helpful in gaining support from everybody. I don’t think anybody disagrees that architecture has a toxic work environment. If everybody can baseline agree on that, I think most people would agree with unionizing. One of the things that causes hesitation is: what are the consequences if this doesn’t follow through? Because we were a small group, we had trust in each other.
Trust was a critical aspect from the start, and up to this point, when we’re bargaining. Trust in each other, that we’re doing this for the right reasons; trust in Andy [Bernheimer], that he sees our intentions, and shares similar intentions; and trust in David [DiMaria, Staff Organizer with IAMAW] and Andrew, who guided the process up to this point.
One of the other topics was filling in the holes of people not necessarily understanding what a union can do, and why we would need one. Most people think about unions being related to other types of not necessarily professional work. Designers sometimes think of ourselves as these individuals and misrepresent the labor that we do. But the work that we do is work. We are still bringing a service and we are producing something.
The fear of the unknown is huge. As an internal organizer at SHoP, that was something that we heard often: “It’s never been done before, why hasn’t it been done?” or, “There’s probably a good reason why that hasn’t happened.” But we were also hearing the question of, “Why the machinists?” If we start saying that, or “Why the auto workers?” or “Why this union?” it starts to devolve into a classist struggle. If we think about most unions, at this point, representing a wide breadth of people under a single moniker, then we can start to understand that part of that fear is thinking that we’re alone in all of this.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers are a great resource for us, because this is the first union in our industry. Without them, we’d be walking in blind. We studied architecture, not labor laws! It hasn’t felt like this larger entity because we primarily work with two people, telling us what our rights are and how we can use our rights as a union to collectively bargain.
So this process of collective bargaining involves employees, working as a group, negotiating with the firm’s management for a contract that will determine the conditions of your employment, such as salaries, hours, and leave policies, to name a few examples. Can you explain the distinction between the bargaining unit and the bargaining committee?
The bargaining unit includes everybody that is considered an employee in our firm. It excludes people who are in supervisory roles. These definitions are kind of old, because they’re from manufacturing: employees are people who are on a factory floor and supervisory roles are people overseeing them. But in architecture, there’s more than those two levels. You can have managers, but they’re not in a supervisory role. Then, there are four bargaining committee members, including me and Kolby. We all volunteered for it, but when we discussed who would be in the bargaining committee, we wanted to have a diverse group, people that represented different types of projects in the firm, as well as diversity in terms of sex, gender, and race.
Who from management is attending the bargaining meetings? Is it Andy? Are there mediators from their side?
Five associates and Andy. Four of them, including Andy, were in negotiations today. We agreed to a quorum. We don’t want to pause the process if one person can’t attend. Because we’re still working during this process, we agreed that, as long as the majority of people are in the space, we can continue conversations.
Federal Mediation and Conciliatory Services helps facilitate the sessions; they’re neutral on everything. They come to the table, listen to everything, help you brainstorm issues, and help you categorize where things should go in terms of how to approach it. Instead of playing poker and being mad and frustrated all the time, you can channel that emotion to be useful for everybody and basically say, “Hey, we actually want to get to the same place. We’re just coming from opposite ends of the spectrum on this.”
We’re doing interest-based bargaining, which, from what I understand, is not commonly used. We talk about issues, and then we discuss our interests, and then we try to resolve these through discussion. We’re choosing not to do traditional bargaining for some topics, because this is the first union contract for our industry. I think we are an exception because we do have good relationships with our employer, and it’s easier to have these kinds of conversations. Traditional bargaining entails passing over a proposal, it’s approved, or it’s not, or they respond with a new proposal. When we went through the training, we saw that it doesn’t create room for conversations. Everything you say in traditional bargaining has a consequence, and we weren’t looking for that. We were looking for a collaborative experience.
We also spoke about this process potentially being faster, since there is that collaboration to start with. If both parties are within the same room, you can come to consensus quicker.
Beyond bargaining, are there any updates or new happenings with the union that you’d all like to talk about?
We have a Labor Management Committee. Ayman and I are on it, and also three members of management. The committee considers and addresses those issues that you wouldn’t think of necessarily in a typical union contract. A good example is — we want to come up with a solution for our materials library. I don’t think anyone needs materials library language in a legal contract. But we also want to have a space where it doesn’t just fall to management. Any issue that does not require legal language that we would still like input on at the office, and also any issues that might come up before we have a contract, because typically, a contract takes a year. There is still a place for discussion between the bargaining unit and management.
Not just before the first contract, but between contracts, too. Most contracts are three to five years. That’s a long time to say, “We’re not going to edit that at all.” Without a contract, a company can change your working conditions without asking you about it as workers. We saw that clearly with other industries that we represent, especially in manufacturing: companies wanting to put in extra policies that put people at risk in terms of health and safety. The union basically said, “This is not safe for our members, our workers.” Whereas non-union shops didn’t have that flexibility, and people got sick. People died. This has real life and death consequences, so being able to say, “Hey, we want to change this policy. What do you the workers think about this?” They can say, “Yeah, sure. This actually works for everybody.” Or, “Hey, let’s pump the brakes. This needs bigger discussion.”
BA has changed drastically in the past three years. We’ve doubled in size. So priorities, and how a contract applies to the employees, that changes too. Our identity has evolved quite a bit. I’m not projecting that we’re going to double in size again, but in case that does happen, the contract should probably reflect that and the needs of a changing firm.
Your firm seems like a unique place to be undergoing a unionization effort. Andy has very publicly supported your efforts. Generally, how collaborative has this process felt?
There’s a collective feeling that we want to have positive impact. Andy has said himself that if he was employed by an architecture firm, he would have been pro-union. Andy has said, “If I can make the architecture industry better, and house as many people as possible, those are my two goals,” a lot in our conversations.
When we first started organizing, members of management were part of the unit. So it’s been an uplifting experience.
I think it’s important to emphasize that even if you have a good work environment, you should also have a say in your work environment, and the union gives you the framework to have a voice, and have buy-in, and collectively bargain, and discuss issues, and be heard by management. We’re still in negotiations, but we have just cause now. That is a big deal.
Your employer might agree with you, but that doesn’t mean you have the legal protection a union can provide. Yes, we have a supportive employer and were voluntarily recognized. You also don’t need that to have a union.
We say this often in organizing: You’re one good manager leaving away from having horrible working conditions. I think the other folks that are in management will be amazing stewards if and when Andy ever leaves the company, but that’s not always what happens as an architecture firm transitions management and ownership. All it takes is that one person that is benevolent leaving to all of a sudden have a much different relationship with your work. If you don’t have a contract, you don’t actually have any say in that change.
As architects, we generally don’t work with clients without a contract. We have a written contract before we start working and try and follow that as much as possible. Even if you have the closest relationship with them as a friend, or a colleague, or whatever it might be, you want that clear understanding so that everyone can point back to it if something goes wrong. Why is that any different for you and your employer?
Your efforts have certainly generated a lot of interest within the industry. Have you all been in touch with workers at other firms who are interested in forming a union?
I feel like every architecture conversation is like, “What other job should I do?” It would be great for everyone to feel like there is an expansive industry of many opportunities that could provide a healthy career. We all like architecture and want to be architects, so we would like that to be possible. We can work hard on making our firm better, but it’s an industry issue.
A lot of conversations when you are out with other architect and designer friends turn to the horrors of working at these offices. It’s been nice to have the conversation shift to clear action items, now that we’ve gone through this process and seen a path to concrete change.
When I took this job, I was concerned that the only workers that would be reaching out were at firms of a certain size in New York, doing a certain kind and profile of work, that are known for having the worst working conditions. If that was the case, it would have been a really poor indication of our read on the overall industry, that these issues that we were thinking were fully systemic maybe weren’t. What has happened is sort of the exact opposite: we’ve had small firms reach out, we have firms that are distributed throughout the country.
Beyond that, it’s not just architects. That was one of the biggest things for us, too — when I was at SHoP and we chose the name Architectural Workers United for the broader campaign — is that anyone designing the built environment is under a lot of the same conditions, right? So interior designers, landscape architects, lighting designers, planners, and all of these other allied professions, overhead staff in general, administrative folks, people that are working on renderings, people that are in the model shop, people that are working on marketing, materials librarians at some larger firms that have full-time staff, executive assistants, people at front desk, janitorial staff, custodial staff, all of those folks still work at that office. Whatever they’re doing, they’re helping to create the work that gets put out.
We’ve laid it out to everybody that you can design what your bargaining unit looks like. If you want it to just be designers and architects, that’s what it can be. However, if you want to think about this more broadly, we can figure that out. Every single group has said, “Let’s include as many people as possible because that’s the whole point of this, right?”
I think that a lot of the bad patterns that we see in the industry are set early on in our careers when we are in academia. We’re taught not to value our time. You stay up all night, every night, working. You just take it at face value to expect that.
On that note, how do you all situate your experience — front of the line in this unionization effort in an industry that has none, basically — within the broader labor movement that we’re seeing right now, across all sorts of categories of workers, both “professional” and not? Do you take any ideas or inspiration from that broader landscape?
Pre-2020, I think we were all in a hamster wheel of “this is the way it is.” Once that hamster wheel went to the home, it gave you a moment to evaluate: “What am I doing?” We’re picking up on the energy of a lot of industries, understanding how we can do better. We don’t need to accept or revert to the status quo. We can try something else, because we have collective power.
My personal thought process is, what kind of sacrifice is required, or was perceived as required to make good work? And I think it’s just really saying that it’s not worth sacrificing human dignity for something that’s perceived as your specific creative vision. I think it requires this real reckoning of what is worth asking your employees to sacrifice for. And hopefully, it proves that you can make good work and you do not need to make people miserable in the process. It’s immoral, and it doesn’t need to happen. I really don’t think creative work should cause suffering. It’s not necessary.
It’s also being taught in school that you are the creator of your whatever. And then during the pandemic, working from home, it’s like “You’re not an auteur. You’re in Revit. It’s not revolutionary.” Architecture is a collaborative process, not a singular person’s work of art.
In the broader movement, it’s realizing that decisions that affect us on a day-to-day basis are being made by other people and not by us. Giving the opportunity to have a voice is very important to create fairness. How does someone who’s been working for 50 years know what we’ve gone through? We can’t afford a house, and it’s not because of the decisions we’ve made, it’s because of decisions someone else has made.
In terms of how this relates to other movements and big wins that we’ve seen over the last two or three years, it allows people to understand that it’s possible. If workers at your local Starbucks can organize, then you can, too. And for those workers it’s actually about a small community that works together at a coffee shop. It’s ten workers that are sharing shifts back and forth, not this amoeba of people going to all the different shops. Similarly, understanding the conditions people at an Amazon fulfillment center or warehouse are under and fighting against, you start to understand what labor is.
When we were organizing at SHoP, there wasn’t yet this example of a successful union. We were looking to Kickstarter, Google subcontractors, nonprofits, public radio. “Okay, this is actually possible, and how do we apply it to what we do?”
The main question I’ve heard come up in every conversation we’ve had is, “How are you profitable? How are you doing this?” People want some kind of simple answer, and the answer is effort and believing that it is possible. I think it’s easy to view our situation as a unicorn, but we’re actually an extremely normal architecture office. Our work and size are very similar to other architecture offices in the city. People want to cite all these industry-wide issues as to why unionization would be impossible, but we’re just trying to say, again, it doesn’t radically change the way the office functions.
I think it’s important to say that a union doesn’t only address economic questions. There’s a lot of other things that people want in their workplace that isn’t centered around money. We’re not here to bankrupt the office. We’re here to make a sustainable work environment and a healthy work environment as well.
This relates to the other movements happening at the Starbucks, the Amazons. Usually when we are at bars with other architects and we talk about the systemic issues in our industry, we point the finger to external factors, like the market, our clients’ expectations, or tradition. We took a step back and actually said, “Rather than just blaming other things that are out of our control, let’s try to organize and take some control.”
I also think it’s undervalued, how much a healthy work environment makes people care about the place they work. Retention is a massive issue in architecture. We have such good retention; I work with the same people that I started with, basically. We all really care about the office, and even being exposed to other people in labor, I think that’s a message that gets lost. If our company is successful, that’s good for us, and getting your employees to care about that is good for everybody.
I think there’s this narrative that “a union just wants to burn all these businesses to the ground.” That doesn’t help any of the workers if we do that. And if that was our goal, and we were successful at it, then we would have zero members because they’d all be out of jobs. Our goal is to make sure that the business is as successful as possible so that it supports the workers as much as possible.
So, on a personal level, how is it balancing the demands of trying to start the first private-sector architecture union on top of having a job and having a life? How are you all feeling?
Throughout school, working, we spend so much time talking about issues that we have absolutely no control over. This is work, but it’s very concrete, which goes a long way in terms of it feeling worth it. It’s nice to have a roadmap: This is how you can make your workplace, and therefore your life, better. What a worthwhile way to spend your time!
Having been through the process from early on and seeing how it’s evolved, I just think it’s brought us all much closer, in terms of our colleagues, and management, and Andy, because we in some ways share the same goal. Knowing that we all have somewhat different priorities, but that we all have the same trajectory, and we share the same overall vision of how we want to be as a firm, that’s been the most rewarding part. And we don’t even have a contract yet.
Organizing is hard work. Bargaining is hard work. We make no bones about that. Every group that comes to us, it’s like, “Look, this might be the hardest thing that you wind up doing in your professional career. There are no shortcuts.” That takes time, that takes work. This industry is riddled with burnout, and being able to accept that and say, “Alright, some people needed to step back, other people need to step up into those roles,” is a hard thing in an industry where everyone is already working crazy hours.
In terms of the work environments that I’ve been in, the one that has always stuck with me is one of my first jobs — I left after 5:30 pm or 6 pm only a handful of times in the year that I worked at there. The principal said to me, very clearly, “Go home, because if you don’t go home, you’re actually worse as a worker for me if you’re not going out and experiencing the world, doing things that fulfill you, spending time with your family, doing stuff that’s fun.” That doesn’t really happen in this industry. It’s usually like, “I’m a firm principal, that is my only being, and that is my entire soul and life and essence.” If we can start to unpack that and break away from those kind of thought processes and toxic relationships, then we can actually all be better. And right now, there’s just no incentives to do that because we’re all exempt workers, or most of us are, in the industry. If we can put in structure to all of this, then we can actually start to claw our lives back from it.
I’m excited to see what the next architecture union is, or when it comes out. I think it’s just important to emphasize that having a voice matters. That basic level of having a voice in your workplace can amplify all our voices in the industry overall. And that’s what’s important about it. We talked about that a lot when we first started. For me, this is the first step to, hopefully, a snowball of efforts from other offices as well.
All definitions below adapted from Architectural Workers United's Glossary of Union Terms.
Organizing: Employees come together to discuss their working conditions and begin to determine if unionization may be right for them. A group of employees coordinates efforts to list all employees of a business and work in a concerted and organized manner to strategize the contacting and discussing of issues within the workplace with all proposed members of the unit to confirm interest amongst the employees of being represented by a union.
Professional Employee: Per the National Labor Relations Board, any employee engaged in work (i) predominantly intellectual and varied in character as opposed to routine mental, manual, mechanical, or physical work; (ii) involving the consistent exercise of discretion and judgment in its performance; (iii) of such a character that the output produced or the result accomplished cannot be standardized in relation to a given period of time; (iv) requiring knowledge of an advanced type in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction and study in an institution of higher learning or a hospital, as distinguished from a general academic education or from an apprenticeship or from training in the performance of routine mental, manual, or physical processes; or (b) any employee, who (i) has completed the courses of specialized intellectual instruction and study described in clause (iv) of paragraph (a), and (ii) is performing related work under the supervision of a professional person to qualify himself to become a professional employee as defined in paragraph (a).
Collective Bargaining: A process in which employees, through their bargaining committee, deal as a group to determine wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. Normally, the result of collective bargaining is a written contract called the collective bargaining agreement which covers all employees in the unit.
Contract: A contract or collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is a document incorporating the results of the negotiations between the parties; a written instrument setting forth the terms and conditions of employment, grievance resolution procedures, and any other accords resulting from collective bargaining. Also known as the contract, agreement, CBA, etc. The NLRB requires that the terms of a collective bargaining agreement be reduced to writing and that the terms of a collective bargaining agreement cannot be changed unilaterally by either party.
Supervisor: The term “supervisor” means any individual having authority, in the interest of the employer, to hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward, or discipline other employees, or responsibly to direct them, or to adjust their grievances, or effectively to recommend such action, if in connection with the foregoing the exercise of such authority is not of a merely routine or clerical nature, but requires the use of independent judgment. Supervisory employees are excluded from being a part of a union under the NLRA.
Management: Refers to the individuals who operate a business. This can include owners of the business, employees on ownership tracks, representatives from human resources and/or legal and/or finance/accounting departments, as well as supervisors. Anyone who is considered part of management cannot be part of the unit.
Just Cause: This standard has come to denote a variety of ‘‘due process’’ safeguards, such as rights to notice and a hearing, to assure that discipline has been imposed in an appropriate manner and for sufficient reasons.
Voluntary Recognition: An employer may voluntarily recognize a union when presented with authorization cards signed by a majority of employees in a bargaining unit. An employer may also enter into a card check agreement with a union before union organizers begin to collect signatures.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.