Architects are joining the resurgent union movement, but it’s about more than better conditions for workers. A happier workforce will make a stronger industry, advocates tell Shukri Sultan
Arthur Scargill and the miners, Mick Lynch and the RMT workers – that’s what usually comes to mind when we think of unions, rather than an architect. However, this has begun to change. The labour movement in the architectural sector has seen a resurgence in the last few years, with grassroots organisations such as the Section of Architectural Workers, (SAW) part of the wider union United Voices of the World (USVSAW), forming in late 2019 and Future Architects Front (FAF) in 2021.
Born out of a two year long Workers’ Inquiry – which surveyed the conditions of the industry – SAW is the first attempt at unionisation of British architects since the New Architecture Movement (NAM) in the 1970s and 80s. Decades later, members of SAW find themselves still facing the issues highlighted by NAM in its pamphlet Working for What?, such as unpaid overtime and overwork.
Propelled by unethical conduct such as furlough fraud by some practices during the pandemic, SAW and FAF have come to the forefront of the industry as key agents for change. The recent election of Muyiwa Oki as the next RIBA president is a testament to their growing influence and power. A hustings spearheaded by FAF with the support of the RIBA's Future Architects and others saw Oki selected as a candidate, to represent ‘architectural workers’, a term central to the group’s formation and organising efforts.
It is an inclusive term encompassing anyone in the industry that does not have the power to hire and fire, so widening the discussion to include technicians, administrators, office cleaners and all those that contribute to the production of architecture. The term holds a lot of power, as Marisa Cortright – author of ‘Can this be? Surely this cannot be? Architectural Workers Organizing in Europe’ — highlights: ‘There is no “architectural” struggle, but there is a labour struggle, to which we all belong’. The term forges a connection between those in the built environment sector and the wider labour movement.
Challenge on fees
With an architectural worker as the RIBA president elect, there is a real possibility that the demands of NAM, now continued by SAW and FAF, will be met. Oki has promised to end unpaid overtime in RIBA chartered practices, a crucial but challenging pledge to enact. When asked about those challenges, SAW co-ordinator Tia Duong responded: ‘I understand that the industry itself is underpaid via clients fees but our demand to be paid fairly for our overtime will hopefully result in bosses demanding higher fees from their clients. Perhaps then we will see an end to firms racing to the bottom, trying to pitch the lowest. So this collective pushing from us workers is necessary, because what else can we do?’
History itself shows that the union demands are not only possible but a fundamental right. Unions have been instrumental in securing a minimum wage, maternity and paternity leave, holiday and sick pay – from which we all benefit now. Besides, the demand for paid overtime is only the beginning.
Current RIBA Chartered Practice Code of Practice requires that all staff must be paid at or above the National Living Wage – which is due to go up this September, following inflation. But if practices calculate an annual salary on a 37.5 hour working week they may need a reality check. Data from chartered practices shows a median of £22,000 for part 1 architectural assistants, which complies with the living wage – so long as you don’t factor in unpaid overtime. Responses to the surveys conducted by FAF and SAW have seen reports from architectural workers working an average of 60 hours a week. At which point the hourly rate would work out at £7.63 – significantly below the living wage of £9.18/9/.50 (before the 2022 change). The London Living Wage is another thing again and significant given the number of London based practices.
Furthermore, the issue is not due to the client’s inability to pay higher fees, explains SAW co-ordinator Noah Power: ‘A lot of clients are developers or real state companies worth billions; they can afford the fees. But there’s this internal competition in the sector to provide the best services for the lowest fees possible, which automatically writes in unpaid labour.’ Prioritising profits at the expense of staff wellbeing is unsustainable and detrimental to the industry.
However, the focus of unions isn’t just finance, but overall change. 'Unionising is not simply a hostage negotiation where you’re demanding a ransom. The point of unionising is that it gives you a seat at the table. It gives you a role in the governance of the organisation. It’s not about gutting a company and running it into the ground, but about the workers having a say over how it is run, how funds are distributed and how decisions are made,’ explains Charlie Edmonds, co-founder of FAF.
Unions are vehicles to help bring about a more ethical workplace designed to hold the industry to a higher standard. As well as improving workplace conditions, they are working towards education reform and implementing real change to deal with the climate crisis.
Rather than fearing unions, employers should embrace them and work towards achieving their demands. If you need any more convincing, look at Sweden, home to the highest paid architects in Europe, with around 80 to 85% of the profession unionised. The Swedish Association of Architects has successfully lobbied for laws such as the ‘Stamped Living Environment’, which endeavours to create ‘a sustainable, equal and less segregated society’ through design and architecture. Perhaps the reluctance to embrace unions stems from a culture afflicted with anti-union rhetoric, evidenced and perpetuated by politicians’ response to RMT strikes this summer. Even Kier Starmer, leader of a party that – in the words of Ernest Bevin ‘grew out of the bowels of the trade-union movement', has pledged to ‘crackdown’ on unions. It is this culture that has created the perception of union members being nefarious shirkers. Yet as Powers explains, unions aren’t ‘trying to sink the architecture industry or give architects a bad name. We genuinely want change because we care about the work that we’re doing, we care about architecture and we want people to stay in the industry.
This week the staff at the London-based practice, Atomik Architecture have given notice to their employers of their intention to ballot for strike action making them the first private sector architectural workers to do so. They’ve listed 5 demands; a 10% pay increase, reduced working hours to reflect the industry norms, flexible working arrangements, paid training (which currently takes place during unpaid lunch breaks) and recognition of the trade union. In their joint statement, the workers stated that striking was their last resort after their previous attempts to negotiate with directors were repeatedly dismissed and ignored.
Jake Arnfield, UVW-SAW representative says ‘What we are hearing from our membership is that most workers are not getting the pay rises they need. In a sector which has had stagnant wages for at least 20 years the cost of living crisis is exacerbated – particularly for those at the lower end of the pay scale. Numerous groups of architectural workers are looking very seriously at industrial action as one way to resolve this. If even a single strike happens, it could trigger a wave of strikes in architecture this autumn and winter. If you work in architecture, we encourage you to get behind Atomik workers. Their success is part of the movement to raise wages and eliminate rampant exploitation in the sector.’ It will be interesting to see in the coming weeks how the directors of Atomik will respond.
Whatever your position on unions, the architectural workers’ revolution is here and making significant changes. Oki’s election and Atomik staff's actions is proof that these workers are not a fringe group that can be ignored, but are instrumental shapers of this industry. With inflation and energy bills skyrocketing and global warming increasing, the industry needs the courageous work of SAW and FAF to help create a more ethical, sustainable industry for us all.