On May 8, the architecture labour movement took another big step forward: Workers at Snøhetta’s U.S. offices filed a petition to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). While the news came just two weeks ago, the campaign has been in the works since before SHoP Architects’ historic union drive went public in December 2021. The petition includes 65 full and part-time employees across disciplines — from architects and designers to project leaders and operations staff — at both the firm’s New York and San Francisco studios. If successful, the firm will be the second in the country to unionize as part of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), following Brooklyn-based Bernheimer Architecture which is currently in the process of negotiating its contract.
Not unlike the situation at Bernheimer, Snøhetta employees’ accounts of their working conditions have been overwhelmingly positive. Workers told Curbed that their campaign is centred around solidifying these standards — and that they hope the outcome will transform the industry at large. In a statement released by Architectural Workers United, the group said: “We are proud of our work at Snøhetta and we are committed to our studio’s success. Through unionization, we will gain a collective voice in the future of our workplace and our profession.”
It’s a message that contradicts the misconception that unionization can only be the result of employee mistreatment. But as The Hustle Architect put it on Twitter, “People don’t unionize because they hate their jobs and want to get out of them. They unionize because they find value in their work and want to do it well, to do it safely & sustainably.”
Management’s response shows promise: “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. We have been told that their focus is on addressing industry-wide issues rather than challenges specifically within our studio,” said the firm’s statement. As is inherent in unionization, management — including supervisors, partners and directors —and ancillary employees in departments such as accounting and HR will not be represented by the union. But their vote of support echoes shifting views with regard to architecture’s labour movement.
In Norway, where Snøhetta was founded, these values are far more commonplace. In fact, many workers at the firm’s Oslo studio are represented by Arkitektenes Fagforbund (AFAG): the country’s national union for architects, landscape architects, interior architects, designers and planners. Employees with their master’s degree or equivalent in architecture, planning, design and art history — as well as students and those who are self-employed — can opt into the trade union to access countless benefits including legal advice, salary negotiations, career counselling and even discounted sessions with a psychologist (perhaps the biggest draw given the pressures this demanding profession can place on employees’ mental health). The union has different collective bargaining agreements for the private and public sectors but does not negotiate with individual employers.
Labour laws differ considerably between Norway and the U.S., where the path towards unionization is more complex: workers have to organize and negotiate a customized contract with their employer. Now that the firm has submitted its petition, stating what the bargaining unit should be, Snøhetta has a chance to respond and state its position. The next step is an election. If the union wins a majority vote, Snøhetta will be the largest unionized firm in the U.S., the first to include landscape architects and the first with a connection to a European firm.
These factors of scale and geography may make things more complicated than at Bernheimer (which comprises just 22 employees at one office). In contrast, Snøhetta’s U.S. offices have 88 employees, which could potentially cause more challenges in communicating, hearing everyone’s concerns and reaching an agreement. Working in multiple states could introduce another complication — though New York and California are very similar in terms of cost of living and labour laws. If Snøhetta proceeds to contract negotiation, they can either elevate certain provisions to the higher standard of the two states or adjust the language so that certain aspects of the contract are specific to each location. Ultimately, it would be the union’s choice to make.
Given Snøhetta’s cachet as one of the industry’s leading firms, it will surely serve as inspiration — and a precedent for other large offices with multiple locations. The hope is that as unionization becomes normalized that more firms will continue to join Bernheimer’s ranks. “We’re talking about workers having the ability to claim federally available and legally enforceable rights — all you have to do is ask for them,” says Andrew Daley, an organizer at IAMAW. “Support for unions overall in the workforce is over 70 per cent — the highest it’s been since the 60s. I think we’re probably going to see more clients wanting to work with a unionized staff. Because then they’re actually going to be less tired and feel like they can go home and see their family, which will make the project better.”
The firm’s New York and San Francisco offices have filed a petition to unionize with the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB).