This article was updated on January 10th, 2022 to include a statement from SHoP leadership and comments from Architectural Workers United. 

On December 21st, a group of employees at New York-based firm ShoP announced plans to unionize, a ground-breaking step for the profession. In a statement released by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), a group of architects at SHoP announced the formation of Architectural Workers United, a coalition of New York City-based architectural workers seeking to unionize their workplaces. According to Architectural Workers United there has not been a significant unionizing effort on the part of private architects in the U.S. since the 1940s. If the action is successful, employees at SHoP will have one of the only unions in a private American architecture firm.

The SHoP employees behind the move cited grueling work hours at modest pay and the poor work-life balance demanded by the firm as reasons for this action: “These conditions have become detrimental to our lives and in extension the lives of our families,” organizers wrote in a letter to SHoP partners, noting that this work culture is “the product of larger systemic issues within the discipline of architecture and [is] in no way unique to SHoP.” Organizers told The New York Times that roughly half of eligible employees have formally pledged support for the union.

SHoP is a mid-sized firm with 135 employees and is well-known for its innovative work on urban megaprojects, such as the Barclays Center, and residential projects in Brooklyn and Manhattan that have reshaped the city’s skyline. Most recently SHoP designed Uber’s new Headquarters in San Francisco. “It is significant that SHoP is the first firm to make this step,” architect Peggy Deamer told RECORD. Deamer is a Yale professor and a founder of The Architecture Lobby (TAL), an organization “advocating for the value of architecture in the general public and for architectural work within the discipline,” according to its website.

Firm unionization has been central to the mission of The Architecture Lobby since its formation in 2013, but architecture has proven to be a particularly difficult field in which to organize. Architects often hesitate to see themselves as workers, the organization has noted, a mindset that sees entry-level professionals more willing to accept the prestige the profession offers in the place of adequate monetary benefits. “There are persistent myths that architecture is a calling or vocation that is worth enduring oppressive conditions in school or in the workplace,” says architectural designer Maya Porath, an associate at a small New York firm and national organizer for TAL, “We provide space for workers to come together and build relationships outside of existing institutions, in defiance of the existing ideas of professionalism, and hierarchy, and power.”

Deamer confirmed that the organization was actively involved in SHoP’s unionization efforts and that at least one other New York firm has been targeted by organizers. She declined to name the firm or firms due to the delicate nature of organizing: “At a certain point,” she told RECORD via email, “The unionization group had to stop reporting to the Lobby membership at large [regarding] direct negotiations [with firms] because of the need for secrecy.”

ShoP’s unionization is unfolding in the context of a greater labor movement as workers’ issues from all sectors have been exacerbated by the economic disruption and demands of the pandemic. Over the past year, workers at Amazon, and more recently Kellogg’s and Starbucks, have been increasingly vocal about poor working conditions and have been successful in organizing labor at the ground-level. In the white-collar arena, this year has seen a wave of protest against industry standards, from journalists at Conde Nast to graduate student workers at Columbia University. Deamer notes that the pandemic put particular stress on architects working remotely, who were expected to maintain their previous output. Porath saw many peers struggle as their work intruded even more into their home lives and mentioned seeing increases in unpaid overtime.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers is one of the largest unions in the country, with over 500,000 members; these include highly-skilled technical workers but also nurses, social workers, graphic designers, and architects working in the public sector. David DiMaria, special representative for IAMAW and the main organizer assigned to the AWU campaign in New York, told RECORD that this organizing effort began in the fall of 2020, when architectural workers from SHoP (amongst other unnamed firms) began to reach out about organizing their workplaces. “When someone reaches out from an industry that’s completely non-union, we really have to step back and be thoughtful,” he says, “Early on, I think everyone understood that if we want to solve the issues that are important to architectural workers, which are largely systemic, we have to look at this in a much broader scale than just looking at one workplace, but have a plan to actually engage.” According to DiMaria, such a plan includes not only securing collective bargaining rights, like those at SHoP are seeking, but broader political action and gaining union density in the field.

Equity in architecture has become a major issue, but the topic of labor conditions has trailed behind recent efforts at diversity and inclusion. Yet in at least one way, ShoP became more inclusive for its staff when it became a 100 percent employee-owned firm in March 2021, with the first allocation of equity shares distributed to all employees on December 31st, according to the plan. In a statement addressing IAMAW’s announcement, SHoP leadership said that the firm was “founded to practice architecture differently and has always been interested in empowering and supporting our staff.” They pointed to this shift to employee-ownership as an effort “to secure that mission and future leadership for the firm…[and further] our shared commitment to a culture of innovation and the next-generation practice of architecture.”

SHoP’s unionization announcement sparked a wave of support and debate online. One former ShoP employee, Tyler Goss, described his experience at the firm in a Twitter thread: “When I started at ShoP in 2005, I made $36K. Over the next 4 years I received small incremental raises while ... working an average of 47 hours a week … and consistently working weekends for months on end, making an effective average wage of about $19/hr, all while being billed out at between $90-150/hr.” (Goss’s experience echoes that of some current employees, who reported to the Times that they worked an average of about 50 hours a week, a number which would easily rise to 60-70 hours during deadline periods.)

The former employee later added on Twitter that at the time he was hired, three other prominent firms had made similar salary offers but SHoP was “actually above the market” in its offer as they provided health insurance. Today, sources say, SHoP continues to provide health benefits, gives more than 30 days paid vacation and holidays, and salaries for architecture school graduates start at $60,000—and that the firm has never used unpaid interns.

Goss, who left SHoP after four years, joined several other architects, academics, and organizers, in an informal 90-minute panel hosted by architectural designer Michael Schwartz on Twitter the evening following the publication of the Times article. Participants mentioned how SHoP, from its inception, has positioned itself on the progressive side of the field: “They were going to be a different kind of firm,” said Goss, “It was one of those places where… from the very outset, they said this is a family, a team.”

Speakers agreed that change in the architectural world would come from the bottom-up, but many echoed Porath’s observation about the difficulties of organizing architectural labor. “Architecture is related to the broader labor movement and the broader specter of capital in a way most other arts are not,” said Kate Wagner, an architecture critic and journalist (The New RepublicThe Baffler), “There’s a great amount of power and potential in that but only when architects see themselves as workers and not as temporarily embarrassed firm-owners. She added, “When [architectural workers] realize that they have more in common with Starbucks baristas than with Norman Foster, it’s going be a very big day for architecture.”

Deamer said her work on behalf of The Architecture Lobby has been met “largely with silence,” on the part of the American Institute for Architects and the profession at large. Yale Professor Philip Bernstein, who expressed his doubts to the Times that SHoP’s organization will be successful or “good for the profession in the long run,” expanded on his views to RECORD, saying that the justified criticism of architectural practice lies deeper than unionization can address. Architects, he argues, should target the larger economic structure that leads firms to underprice their labor. “I am completely sympathetic to the folks at the Architecture Lobby and at SHoP—they are raising critical questions about the nature of architecture practice,” he said in an email, “I’m just not sure the single answer they offer will truly solve the problem.”

But as the AIA noted in a recent dispatch on architectural billings, firms have reported difficulties with staffing and labor shortages – a situation that could tip the scales in favor of architectural workers seeking better compensation and an improved office culture.

“I really hope that SHoP inspires additional workers to see that this is possible,” says Porath of the potential momentum of an architectural labor movement. “This is a way to build collective power in the workplace so that workers can get a seat at the table and gain some control over their own working conditions.” Currently, Architectural Workers United is seeking support and signatures for their union via a petition on their website. Since AWU went public, according to DiMaria, the share of votes within SHoP has increased to a solid majority and architectural workers from across the country have reached out to IAWAW about organizing their own workplaces. “The goal from the beginning has never been to organize one employer, or even to suggest that one employer can fix all these problems,” he says, “This is a long-term vision for how we can change the industry by giving architectural workers leverage.”