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    Architecture Firm Owners and Employees Continue to Weigh Trade Unions

    David C. McFadden
    Dec 15, '22 3:26 PM EST

    In recent years, employees of architecture firms have increasingly attempted to join unions. This trend is driven mainly by the need for workers to protect and secure their rights as professionals. Unions provide a platform for employees to come together and negotiate fairer wages, better working conditions, and greater job security. Members can also access additional benefits such as legal advice, collective bargaining, and representation. Joining a union gives workers in the architecture field more control over their professional lives and helps to ensure that they are treated fairly and equitably by employers. As architectural firms continue to grow, the rights of employees must be protected and respected. Unions play an essential role in providing this protection, giving individuals the peace of mind that their rights and interests are protected.

    By joining a union, architecture firm employees can help improve the industry. By negotiating better wages and working conditions, they can ensure that every professional in the field is treated fairly and compensated equitably for their work. The collective strength of union members also allows them to speak out against any injustices or exploitative practices they may experience, ensuring that their voices are heard and respected. With more people joining unions, the architecture industry is becoming safer and fairer for everyone involved.

    Overall, union membership offers a range of benefits for employees in the architecture field. It gives them a platform to fight for their rights, negotiate better wages and working conditions, and ensure their voices are heard. By joining a union, they can help create a fairer and more equitable industry for everyone involved. As the architecture field continues to evolve, unions will remain essential to ensuring workers’ rights are respected. But is it fools gold?

    As architecture firm owners consider the implications of unionization, they must weigh the risks and rewards. Unionized firms face higher costs for labor, resulting in increased overhead that diminishes their competitive edge. Furthermore, collective bargaining agreements can restrict a firm’s ability to manage staffing levels and set salaries according to market conditions. Not being nimble can limit a firm’s ability to adapt quickly to changes in the industry, as well as its ability to attract and retain talented employees. Ultimately, these factors make unionization a less attractive for many architecture firm owners. However, it is essential to note that unions can bring tangible benefits, such as job security and improved wages and working conditions, which could appeal to some. Ultimately, it is up to individual owners to decide if unionization is the right choice for their businesses.

    Architects are held to a high standard due to the critical nature of their work. They must possess excellent technical knowledge and communicate effectively with clients, designers, and contractors. As a result, they often require specialized training or certification to practice as professional architects. Despite this need for advanced skills and rigorous qualifications, architects are usually not eligible for collective bargaining, as many operate independently or in small firms and do not form unions. Thus, architects must advocate for their interests regarding workplace issues such as wages and working conditions. Architects must know their rights and understand the profession’s regulations to ensure they receive fair compensation and working conditions. By doing so, architects can ensure they can continue practicing their craft in a healthy and productive environment.

    Although architects traditionally do not form unions, they should still be aware of their rights and participate in the industry conversation around workplace issues. By doing so, architects can ensure they are compensated fairly and work in environments that promote their skillset and creativity. Architects must understand how their profession can benefit from unionization to better advocate for their interests.

    It isn’t easy to find accurate statistics on how many architecture firms are unionized, as most are privately owned. However, there have been reports that suggest that under 3% of all architecture firms in the world and one firm in the United States may be part of a union or labor association.

    Although becoming part of a union offers specific employee benefits, such as increased bargaining power and better wages, it can also be limiting in terms of flexibility. By joining a union, an architectural firm is subject to “just cause” guidelines regarding hiring and firing. Just cause means that there must be documented evidence that an employee is not meeting the standards of their position or has committed a punishable offense before they can be terminated. Therefore, it is complicated for an architectural firm to manage its workload most efficiently, as there may not be the flexibility to let go of employees quickly during times of low demand. Additionally, unions can restrict how many subcontractors or temporary workers an architecture firm can hire at any given time, limiting their ability to adapt to changing needs. Including dictating the workflow in contrast to increasing/decreasing staffing levels as needed. In addition, unions are not typically supportive of “at will” employment, which provides much more flexibility when hiring and firing.

    Overall, unions can provide many benefits to architectural firms but also have certain restrictions that must be weighed carefully. Architecture firms must consider all their options before deciding on joining or not joining a union. Ultimately, the best solution will depend on each firm’s specific needs and goals.

    For architecture firms that decide to join a union, there are measures they can take to ensure the best outcomes for their business. For example, firms should make sure they familiarize themselves with the rules and regulations of the union and negotiate any hiring or firing restrictions to ensure maximum flexibility when managing staff levels. Additionally, it is vital to understand the union’s grievance process and how disputes will be handled. Finally, firms should also consider creating a separate contract with the union that outlines their expectations for staffing levels and hiring and firing procedures.

    By taking these measures, architectural firms can ensure that joining a union does not limit their ability to perform their work efficiently and effectively.

    This information is for educational purposes and does not constitute financial, legal, or other professional advice. Please consult with a qualified professional if you require assistance.

    Additional resources:

    – New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/21/business/architects-white-collar-union.html

    – The Real Deal: https://therealdeal.com/2022/09/01/new-york-firm-establishes-architectures-first-union/

    – Architects’ Journal: https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/do-architects-need-a-trade-union

    – National Labor Relations Board (NLRB): https://www.nlrb.gov/

    – American Institute of Architects (AIA): https://info.aia.org/join-aia/collective-bargaining-labor

    – National Association of Architects (NAA): http://www.naahq.org/

    – American Federation of Architects and Engineers: https://afae.org/

    – Society of Professional & Executive Employers (SPEE): http://speeusa.org/

    – U.S. Department of Labor: https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/labor-relations/labor-unions

    – American Bar Association: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/labor_law/publications/aba_books/unionbargaining.html

    – Harvard Law School: https://www.law.harvard.edu/news/labour/collective-bargaining-and-labor-unions/

    – Cornell Law School: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/labor_union

    – Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS): https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2011/ted_20110429_data.htm

    – Governing: https://www.governing.com/topics/workforce/unionizing-workers-collective-bargaining-rights.html

    – National Labor Relations Board (NLRB): https://www.nlrb.gov/what-we-do/protecting-employee

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    After working at various design practices on a full-time and freelance basis and starting his design firm, David McFadden saw a gap in the industry. In 1984, he created an expansive hub for architects and hiring firms to sync up, complete projects, and mutually benefit. That hub was Consulting For Architects Inc., which enabled architects to find meaningful design work while freeing hiring firms from tedious hiring-firing cycles. This departure from the traditional, more rigid style of employer-employee relations was just what the industry needed – flexibility and adaption to current work circumstances. David has successfully advised his clients and staff through the trials and tribulations of four recessions – the early ’80s, early ’90s, early 2000s, the Great Recession, and the pandemic.



     
    • 4 Comments

    • I look forward to your thoughts about unions.

      Dec 15, 22 3:29 pm  · 
       · 
      Catbread

      Great stuff, thank you for sharing. I'm curious what role a union can play in fostering a system/culture that promotes higher design fees for firms. The benefits for employees is obvious, but the larger overhead cost on owners on top of their already tight margins is important to consider. I feel like one of the only ways forward as a profession for its survival and wellbeing is for money to come into it. There's only so much firms can do when it's already so difficult to negotiate a high enough fee.

      Dec 18, 22 3:34 pm  · 
      2  · 
      Janosh

      I think you hit the nail on the head. Unlike many others where unionization has been successful, this isn't a field where the businesses are awash in profit.
      That isn't an argument against unions, but it might be the case that justly deserved higher wages and better working conditions accelerate the demise of the profession. That outcome may not matter as much as some would have us believe....

      Dec 18, 22 9:21 pm  · 
      1  · 
      Non Sequitur

      Nope. I've seen far too many ugly sides of unions to see any long-term benefits.  

      Dec 19, 22 8:08 am  · 
       ·  1
      square.

      you clearly haven't done your homework then- basing your opinion on the example of one union/person isn't enough to throw the baby out with the bath water. i've been in several myself, my parents and other family were, and i have plenty of friends in unions. every single unionized position i've encountered has had significantly better benefits, wages, and security. there's plenty of data to back this up:

      https://www.dol.gov/general/wo...

      https://aflcio.org/formaunion/...

      https://www.theguardian.com/us...

      https://www.npr.org/2012/06/16...

      Dec 19, 22 3:26 pm  · 
       · 
      Non Sequitur

      Just finished a lengthy and ugly union battle through my wife's employer. I've seen how it works behind the curtains and I want no part of it. Union is not the holy solution to the problem.

      Unions work when there is nearly infinite money to go around, such as with gov position or with large corporations. They don't work the same way when the bills are paid by private clients.

      Dec 19, 22 4:35 pm  · 
       · 
      square.

      again, one example of one "bad union." you know better than to apply an individual experience as an assumption about unions in general. it's why anecdotal arguments are weak. also, no one is claiming they are a magic bullet (another weak argument), just that this profession is in such shambles, and the floor is so low, that it's hard to find reasons that unions won't help.

      bring some data or preface your posts with the fact that your experience is very limited.

      btw, did you know that almost half of union members are professionals?

      https://smartestdollar.com/res...

      Dec 19, 22 6:42 pm  · 
       · 
      Non Sequitur

      I read through your links Square. I remain unconvinced that unionized is the/part of a solution. Shambles? not really, but that depends on the location. It certainly is not in my area but that probably to do with the cost of education being only a tenth of what it is in the U$A.

      Dec 19, 22 7:50 pm  · 
       · 
      Non Sequitur

      and then my longer, more through-out response was lost to the editing vapour.... oh well. In summary, my pov is that unless we have clear separation of tasks and roles (drafting staff, spec writer, 3D visuals, mis Designers, etc), we can't really have an architect's union. I can easily see a arch-technologist's union or a 3D modeling union, or a cranky BIM corner union because those are mostly labour-like roles. I do not see the same for architects.

      So perhaps we've got too many architects working in non-professional roles... unions won't solve this issue other than make those services unaffordable to the average client.

      Joking aside, unions should be at the employer level, not at a professional org level.  This is why I don't see this moving forward.  Employers who want quality staff offer good $ and good benefits.  My career is what it is because I made it so, not because I joined into the kumbaya chant.

      Dec 19, 22 8:00 pm  · 
       · 
      square.

      here in the us, unions have to be at the employer level.. there's no sectoral bargaining permitted under law. i agree with a lot of what you're saying re: technicians etc. but i disagree about the individual mentality. it certainly works for some, like you, but that is the minority; this profession isn't working for the majority of young people. as i've said elsewhere it's crucial for this industry to keep people coming in.. there might be a glut now, but the tides are shifting quickly.

      further: unions aren't only about wages, it's about collective action and holding your boss accountable, otherwise there is 0 structure for that in the typical workplace, as you're often at the mercy of the mood your boss is in. many things are often promised but there's no formal mechanism to ensure they happen with a contract or a union.

      Dec 20, 22 9:49 am  · 
      1  · 
      msparchitect

      Honestly, if you're at the mercy of what mood your boss is in, you should find a different job and expose that toxic culture publically so that other people avoid that office. That's collective action that will actually make a difference. I can't see trying to force the hand of these boomers as being effective.

      I also can't see any realistic outcome of "holding your boss accountable." Accountable to what? If they aren't paying you, leave. If they're demanding more of you than you think is reasonable, push back. Stand up for yourself if that is the issue. 

      Jan 12, 23 12:47 pm  · 
       · 
      monosierra

      I'm curious if a comparable low margin and high fragmented industry - cultural or otherwise - has unions and how that came about. The trades come to mind first - AEC, highly localized, possibly with high immigrant participation. But they got their start way back in the last century IIRC.

      Dec 23, 22 9:08 am  · 
      1  · 

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