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“Architects must reject ‘follow your passion’ and see ourselves as workers”

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Widespread unionization should be supported by studio leaders as it would help architecture businesses thrive as well as giving workers a fair deal, writes Andrew Daley of Architectural Workers United.


We are told that in order to succeed we must see our job as our passion. This platitude negates the quintessential reality of our professional lives: we are workers first and foremost.

Before you can organize to make changes to your working conditions, you need to first see yourself as a worker. That means rejecting the narrative pushed by employers and academic institutions that “following your personal passions” is the path to fulfillment.

This is not to say that we are not passionate about what we do. We love what we do. But we want to be respected by those that we provide our labor to and for, feeling uplifted and sustainable in the process.

As workers, our conception of acceptable work habits is generated from our superiors

Firm leaders signal with their own work habits that the bare minimum is to work routinely long hours and to do so because you are passionate. In a recent interview on Dezeen with Andy Cohen, the co-CEO of Gensler, the world’s largest architecture studio, this notion of following your passions featured prominently. And while calling for the architecture profession to be less “top-down” and adopt a “flatter, more collaborative leadership style”, he also revealed that he works a 12-hour day.

While good intentioned, his words betrayed a commonly held, inherent misunderstanding of what top-down means, what it implies, and who it affects.

As workers, our conception of acceptable work habits is generated from our superiors. While in most cases, firm leaders don’t necessarily intend for workers to work long hours – even confirming company goals of 40-hour weeks in meetings, team huddles, emails – workers are shown that what is voiced might not be the real expectation.

We watch firm leaders work long hours going after new clients, reviewing drawings, and sending late-night communication. Often those communications are asking for last-minute revisions with the implication – explicit or not – that they must be reviewed first thing in the morning before the big client meeting.

Despite their decrees to “unplug”, or “not work too much”, or “make sure we don’t burn out”, there are always exceptions: one last edit, one last person to the rendering, one last diagram, one last tiny massing tweak that trickles down to every page of the presentation. When and how can these revisions be picked up, if not well outside the bounds of a typical work day?

Compounding the issue, our firm leaders – and often even project managers – do not monitor the hours we work. The work gets done, no questions asked. In fact, firm leaders often request that workers do not log excessive overtime hours to a project to keep metrics in line or because they are beyond the client contract. Worse, project managers, fearing repercussions, will under-report hours to appear profitable.

Working conditions throughout the industry are, on the whole, crushing

A culture of long overtime work – which in many firms goes unpaid – cannot be changed in the current system. As long as project metrics continue to be tracked inaccurately and project planning conversations only involve senior employees, the workers responsible for production will be expected to be “team players”, working until all comments are addressed.

How can we not work long and grueling hours when “no” is not an acceptable response? When pushback is met with annoyance? When you fear being labeled “not a team player”?

None of this is malicious, but it has massive effects. Truly abandoning a “top-down” approach would be beneficial to the industry as well as to workers.

Working conditions throughout the industry are, on the whole, crushing. We work well over a standard work week on average and in many cases 50-100 per cent more on deadline weeks. Our clients do not pay on time and routinely reject our fee proposals and our firm leaders do not push back for fear of losing work. Our project managers are stretched thin, attempting to keep everyone happy, at the expense of the workers executing the projects.

These issues come down to how our value as a profession has been under-compensated because of our lack of leverage: within the building industry, as workers within our firms, and as a profession in the public eye. Developers have all or most of the leverage as they control the money. The building trades have strong, organized workforces with power. Politicians set the rules. We – as designers of the built environment – have little or no leverage.

It’s time we start examining why, and how we can change that. It’s not a lack of value; we have plenty of that, but we have no power to exert it.

Labor can and should be compensated enough in a 40-hour work week to support our lives and our families. Overtime should not be required or expected if it cannot be fairly compensated. And if that would risk firms going under, then our business practices must change.

No more free work for clients. Abolish the unpaid competition model. Report hours accurately and bill accordingly. Follow contracts exactly as they are written, and notify clients immediately when requests fall outside of the contract. Don’t provide five renderings when the contract says two, or 10 design options when the contract says three. These are inefficient business behaviors.

It’s time to let the workers speak, to forge a better path, to unionize

Do not deliberately undercut the fees of other firms just to win a project or even put them out of business! Unfortunately, according to the American Institute of Architects, two firm owners cannot discuss fees or mutually agree to not do a competition without violating federal antitrust laws. Conversely, unions – and thus the workers – are exempt from antitrust laws. To abandon top-down structures, why not allow for bottom-up change?

The only legally protected way for power to be shifted to workers is through unionizing. Firm leaders who believe the industry would benefit from eliminating “top-down” structures should commit to not interfering in efforts to unionize. They should promise not to hire union-busting law firms. Otherwise, their statements are not in good faith. As Rhode Island School of Design assistant professor Jess Myers so eloquently puts it, “worker power is not a cudgel to be used against management or regulate an industry; it’s a tool to ensure stability”.

Worker power does not mean “working groups” or “committees” or “surveys” sanctioned by employers. We’ve led those initiatives, they do not result in real change. It’s time to let the workers speak, to forge a better path, to unionize.

Changing the culture of overwork, the mentality of passion over compensation, and creating a work environment that is inclusive starts with banding together as workers. As we speak with more workers interested in how unionizing can support them, we envision a future where the entire field is lifted to have equal leverage as our peers in the building industry. Solidarity in numbers.

Andrew Daley is an organizer, activist and architect in Brooklyn. He is an associate organizer at Architectural Workers United currently working with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) on organizing efforts within the architecture industry, having previously spent seven years at SHoP Architects where he was a project director.

The photography is by Israel Andrade via Unsplash.

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