On May 12, employees at the New York office of Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta announced plans to organize, saying that they have filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union election. “We are proud of our work at Snøhetta and we are committed to our studio’s success,” reads a statement disseminated by the organizing group via the social media channels of Architectural Workers United (AWU). “Through unionization, we will gain a collective voice in the future of our workplace and our profession.”
If the bid is successful, Snøhetta will only be the second unionized architecture firm in the United States, following Brooklyn-based Bernheimer Architecture (BA), whose union was voluntarily recognized by principal and founder Andrew Bernheimer in September of last year.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled to see Snøhetta join our ranks,” says Christopher Beck, a project architect at BA. “While we were first out of the gate, this feels even more exciting. Both the size and international presence of Snøhetta’s New York office makes this a big deal.” The Bernheimer union is currently in the process of hammering out the details of their contract with management; Beck, who is part of the bargaining committee, says an optimistic end date is this fall, but both parties are prepared for negotiations to continue into next year. Once finalized, the BA union members will be represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), a trade union with over 500,000 members.
With 70 employees, Snøhetta’s New York office—just one of the Oslo-headquartered firm’s eight global satellite studios—is more than quadruple the size of Bernheimer. The former firm’s size and roster of high-profile projects makes the firm more akin to SHoP, where a short-lived union campaign in 2021 stalled amid allegations of union-busting on the part of firm’s management. The firm denied these claims, and has been largely silent publicly, but in February of 2022, associate principal Shannon Han told Curbed that clients had threatened to stop working with SHoP if they unionized: “I also just don’t think a union is right for our industry and our problems,” she said.
However, as a practice with roots in Scandinavia, where union membership is among the highest in the world, it’s possible that Snøhetta is well-equipped to operate a unionized office in this country. In Norway, unions enroll 59 percent of total workers, and nearly a third of architects at Snøhetta’s Oslo office are represented by the national union for design professionals, the Arkitektenes Fagforbund (AFAG).
Established in 1982 as a merging of four different trade unions for design professionals in the public and private sector, AFAG is associated with the larger Federation of Norwegian Professional Associations and represents architects, interior designers, and urban planners. Along with ensuring working conditions via collective agreements between firm management and employees, the 5,700-member trade union also advises on salary negotiations and working conditions, offers legal assistance and career counseling, and publishes an annual salary statistic report.
Of course, what an American architecture union will look like is being shaped as we speak, but the success of organizing groups in other countries could offer a blueprint to improve the working conditions and ensure protections for U.S. architectural workers. In 2019, a group in the United Kingdom formed a grassroots trade union called Section of Architectural Workers, citing grievances similar to those of AWU: low pay, overwork, and precarious employment. The group does not, however, coordinate organizing efforts at individual firms and instead campaigns more broadly for social and environmental causes related to architecture as well as workers’ rights.
“Snøhetta in the U.S. supports our employees’ right to seek self-determination. We look forward to working with this group to better understand what joining a union might mean for the firm, our culture, our business, and our entire team,” a representative of Snøhetta management told RECORD in a statement. “We have been told that their focus is on addressing industry-wide issues rather than challenges specifically within our studio.”
Snøhetta workers could not be reached for comment by RECORD, but Andrew Anderson, a technical specialist at the firm, told Curbed that employees enjoy good working conditions; the Snøhetta union, employees said, was about ensuring their manageable hours and supportive culture while hopefully moving the needle towards healthier workplaces for their peers. “Transforming the industry over time — that was what inspired us to start organizing,” Leo Shaw, a senior proposal coordinator, told the publication.
While AWU declined to comment on how many employees signed Snøhetta’s petition, the NLRB requires that at least 30 percent of employees must indicate interest before a petition is filed. Firm management has the option to voluntarily recognize Snøhetta’s union, as Andrew Bernheimer did last year, sidestepping the need for an election. However, if an election is held, a majority of employees must vote in favor of the bid before the union is certified and contract negotiation can begin.
While the fate of Snøhetta’s union is yet to be seen, organizing efforts continue at other firms. According to organizer Andrew Daley, AWU is involved with at least eight other active campaigns across the country.