In a major development first reported this morning by the New York Times, the employees of multidisciplinary design practice Bernheimer Architecture have formed the first—and for now only—functional union at a private-sector architecture firm in the United States. Employees of the 22-person firm will join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) through their Architectural Workers United (AWU) campaign.
Based in Brooklyn, Bernheimer Architecture is led by principal Andrew Bernheimer, also an associate professor at the Parson School of Design. Per its website, the “studio is committed to designing sustainable and resilient architecture by crafting productive environments for people and their communities.” Projects by the firm include, among others, the under-construction, Gowanus Canal–abutting 300 Huntington Street in Brooklyn (designed in collaboration with Dattner Architects); OneFlushing, an affordable housing development in Queens; and several retail environments for skincare company MALIN+GOETZ. The firm has also completed multiple single-family residential projects in and around New York City.
The union was organized under a voluntary recognition agreement, with Bernheimer voicing his support for its formation.
“We know that architecture is a discipline and profession that has a legacy of exploitation,” Bernheimer explained in a statement shared by the Times. “I am of the opinion that one possible way for things to improve is for educators and professionals to show that they value the people who make all of our architecture happen.”
The formation of the union at Bernheimer Architecture follows an unsuccessful campaign by employees at the much larger New York firm SHoP Architects to organize. Although SHoP employees filed paperwork to hold a union election campaign late last year, the petition was ultimately withdrawn. (You can read AN’s feature story on the efforts here.) While the efforts at SHoP ultimately stalled out, the move was a catalytic one with the newly formed union at Bernheimer Architecture bearing the fruits of that labor, so to speak.
A joint statement released by Bernheimer Architecture and the Bernheimer Architecture Union provided to AN by the IAMAW reads in part:
“We recognize that both the employer 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.
Reflecting on these challenges and opportunities, we will embark on this collective work centered on the following values:
- Respect | We believe that all of the work we do begins with treating each other with unconditional respect. If we want to create safe, beautiful spaces that truly benefit the communities they are designed for, we must first recognize the unique value that each team member brings to our work.
- Value | If we respect our team, we will also fully value their labor. This means equitable compensation for all, regardless of race, gender, or position.
- Growth | We also recognize that a healthy profession begins with a healthy education. The work we do in creating an effective office structure and work environment is directly connected to how we educate future workers.
- Transparency | We seek clarity in how decisions are made internally and externally, ranging from individual employee career development to complex project funding sources.
- Impact | The complexity of the problems facing architecture and the built environment are enormous, from the pervasive influence of capital to devastating climate change. Though we, as one practice, cannot impact these forces alone, we believe that forming and recognizing this union is a crucial step towards building solidarity industry-wide and will have a meaningful impact.
Architecture is a creative and wide-ranging discipline, bringing together many of the sectors and challenges we face today. Within this discipline, BA has been a progressive office at the fore-front of design, craft, and quality, affordable housing. 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.”
Andrew Daley, associate organizer with IAMAW, told AN:
“Architects and allied professionals have historically refused to see that they are workers. That we provide labor and while we are passionate and work hard, we can also be compensated for our time, not treated as if we are just our work, and generally respected as humans. This joint announcement from Bernheimer Architecture shows that architectural workers can achieve better working conditions and can do so with the acknowledgement and support from their management. Maybe the traditional methods of grueling hours, tight deadlines, and minimal fees are not things that we just have to accept. We can demand more and our work will be better for it.”
AN will have more on this encouraging development and its wider potential impact on the industry in the coming days and weeks.