Since the historic union drive at SHoP Architects crashed and burned in January of this year, the labor organizing and advocacy group Architectural Workers United (AWU) has been tight-lipped about its organizing efforts at other architecture firms in New York City. On September 1, however, staff and management at Brooklyn-based firm Bernheimer Architecture (BA) announced in a joint statement with AWU their formation of the first private sector union in a U.S. architecture firm. 

“We recognize that both employers and employees in the field of architectural work face constraints and challenges beyond the control of any individual firm, and that by working together we can uplift the profession and industry in ways that we could not by acting alone,” the statement reads. “Though we are stepping into uncharted territory in many ways, we are overwhelmingly excited, and hopeful, to bolster the values that make BA special. We encourage and invite other practices to join us in this endeavor to reshape the industry at large.”

Founded by principal Andrew Bernheimer in 2011, BA is a small firm (with only 22 employees as compared to SHoP’s 135) that specializes in affordable housing projects in New York City. Employees will join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), a 340,000 member-strong union that already represents some architects in the public sector. 

Bernheimer told RECORD that he was formally notified of the union’s bid in mid-June, the day after his teaching obligations ended at the Parsons School of Design, where he is an associate professor. “I think they were trying to be considerate,” he says, laughing. In August, he decided to voluntarily recognize the union, sidestepping the need for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election­—which was the point at which SHoP’s bid fell apart. 

When that office’s union bid went public in December of 2021, AWU stated that the employees’ grievances were directed at the industry as a whole, and that unhealthy working conditions were in no way unique to SHoP. Yet the rise and fall of the campaign followed the typical adversarial organizing narratives that pit workers against bosses (such as in the Starbucks campaign), or highlight particularly egregious working conditions, like those of Amazon’s warehouses. It is still unclear what happened at SHoP in the short six weeks between the union going public with claims of majority support among employees and the withdrawal of the petition a day before the scheduled NLRB election. But it is apparent that tensions within the firm had flared: AWU later claimed that SHoP leadership had mounted an “aggressive anti-union campaign,” which the firm has denied. 

Counter to this narrative, Bernheimer is supportive, if not actively enthusiastic, about a union at his firm. When he first heard of the organizing taking place at SHoP, he says, his first thought was that the movement was long overdue. “My own political leanings are such that labor organizing, generally speaking, is something I'm inclined to think is very valuable,” he says, “Architecture, as an industry and a profession, has had issues with how it treats labor. For me, there was a recognition that things have to change.”

Prior to the SHoP campaign, the idea of architects unionizing was largely confined to advocacy efforts of groups like the Architecture Lobby. But a growing, wider labor movement in the white-collar sector, which took root during the pandemic, emboldened a younger generation of architectural workers to follow in the footsteps of successful employee-led efforts at institutions such as Condé Nast and Columbia University. AWU and SHoP employees received a groundswell of support from a large contingent of the architectural community, in which claims of long-standing issues, such as long hours and low pay, deeply resonated.

Je Siqueira, an architect at SHoP from 2017 until being laid off as part of budget cuts in November 2021, joined BA as a project architect early this year. She had been highly vocal in the AWU campaign at SHoP, speaking to the New York Times about her struggles working as an architect while pregnant and then as a parent. “After the petition was pulled at SHoP, there was a lot of fear among workers,” she told RECORD. “Now, this more positive story from Bernheimer will, hopefully, empower other workers—and their bosses may feel less intimidated by the idea of organizing. The conversation has already changed.” 

Siqueira describes the unionization process at BA as organic. “When I was hired, it was out in the open that I had been involved in the organizing at SHoP,” she says. Because there were already informal conversations about organizing, she put her colleagues in touch with David DiMaria from IAM. While the smaller size of the firm made it easier to reach out to everyone, she believes the relatively quick success comes from the firm’s culture. “The type of projects that Bernheimer does attracts a certain type of person, who’s concerned with issues of equity,” she says.

With Bernheimer’s voluntary recognition of the union, the next steps are for union members to negotiate a contract with firm leadership. At BA, four representatives from the staff will come to the bargaining table with Bernheimer, as well as representatives of IAM and AWU: DiMaria, and architect turned activist Andrew Daley. The parties will negotiate policies and protections such as maternity leave, wages, holiday pay, and healthcare in a process that can take weeks or months. “The real work starts now,” says Bernheimer. “It’s uncharted territory, we’re the first private sector architecture firm to be organized, but hopefully, it will be as productive and engaging as it's been so far.”

When asked what unionization will mean for her personally, Siqueira says, “I just want to have more job security. I've been laid off three times now and that fear that I could be told to leave without notice creeps up a lot for me. That has repercussions for being able to plan in the future. If I want another child, for example, I need to know I can rely on my job. Once you unionize, you need a just cause to be let go.” 

BA’s unionization could be a dam-break moment for architecture. DiMaria, who told RECORD in February that IAW and AWU were trying to organize at six or more other New York firms, declined to give specifics but says that number has increased, and that workers from more firms had reached out since Bernheimer's announcement.

“We need something to make architecture a healthier, more diverse, and more inclusive profession, and I don’t know if firm-owners can do it by self-elective processes,” says Bernheimer. “Historically, self-regulation is a path to abuse. Organizing has the potential to help.”