studio life

Inside the Historic Union Drive at SHoP Architects

Photo: Nick Dolding/Getty Images

Four days before Christmas, approximately a dozen employees from New York–based SHoP Architects took to Instagram to announce their plan to unionize. The group, which had adopted the name Architectural Workers United, also delivered a letter to SHoP’s six partners to ask for their voluntary recognition of the union. The announcement was not just major news within SHoP, a prominent design firm behind some of the city’s most distinctive supertalls, but also across the industry. If successful, SHoP would become the first unionized architecture firm in the U.S. since the 1940s. As AWU wrote in its statement to the partners, “We are embarking on a campaign to transform the profession and would like for you to join us.” The employees who had spearheaded the union drive, many of them women and employees of color, were hopeful that their efforts would trigger change in a field notorious for its brutal working hours, low compensation, and lack of diversity. But on Thursday evening, the SHoP employees in Architectural Workers United announced that they were calling off their historic bid for unionization. The vote was initially scheduled to kick off at the end of this week.

In a statement posted to social media, AWU explained that the decision was due to the “powerful anti-union campaign” they had come up against at SHoP over the past month. After discussion with their fellow employees, the group ultimately “agreed to pursue another route for positive change within our office.” It’s a sudden about-face for an effort that went public just a month ago and had been in the works for more than a year. In January, a majority of the firm’s 135 employees had signed union cards. But as the letter stated, “To form a successful union, we must not only gain support, but retain it.”

Things have been tense within the usually close-knit firm since AWU’s December announcement. As noted in yesterday’s statement, union organizers found that being the first architecture firm to unionize as well as a “fear of the unknown, along with misinformation” colored many internal conversations, and eventually turned many employees against the idea. And while firm leadership has been publicly silent, internally there has been pushback, with a few associate principals circulating a petition among employees to pull the vote. “We’ve had clients threaten to stop working with us if we unionize,” said associate principal Shannon Han. “I also just don’t think a union is right for our industry and our problems.”

Instead, she pointed to SHoP’s recent shift to an employee-owned benefits plan as a solution to the changes that the employees had demanded. “We became an ESOP [employee stock-ownership plan] in March, and were already on the path to addressing those issues,” she said. This plan, which distributes company profits with workers in the form of shares in the company, has become especially popular in architecture, with other prestigious firms such as Zaha Hadid Architects and Gensler making the switch.

This message echoes an earlier attempt by SHoP to wave its employee-owned benefits plan as an alternative to the union, when employees say an ESOP consultant informed everyone that those who were part of a collective bargaining unit would not be included in the stock-ownership model. (A clause was later added in documents that union members would be included if the firm recognized the collective bargaining unit, which was in keeping with National Labor Relations Board guidelines.) Employees said that the consultant also told them that an ESOP was a good alternative to unions, and stressed that the committee in charge of it (to be appointed by the firm’s board) would be selected in order to reflect employee demands for diversity.

SHoP said the decision to switch to a 100 percent employee-owned company was initiated to fulfill its goal of “empowering and supporting our staff.” However, the presentation was a perfect reminder to many that employee ownership does not necessarily mean democratic decision-making. “I have a feeling we are going to be seeing a lot more firms attempt to use this ESOP strategy to avoid unionization,” said Jess Myers, a member of Architecture Lobby, an architecture-advocacy organization. She added, “What workers need to understand is that having equity is not the same as having managerial power. In the ESOP model, workers do not get to determine the value of their equity … They don’t get any say in how projects are run to build that value. They don’t have the power to make negotiations with management.”

The employees know that, compared to some of the field’s worst offenders, SHoP is not considered a bad place to work. The midsize firm prides itself on having a personable workplace where partners know the names of employees, the projects are stimulating, and the office even has beer on tap. But the conditions there can still push people to the brink. As the union announcement noted, working at SHoP was defined by a climate of “endless overtime and deadlines,” and employees say this has led to mental and physical breakdowns and personal relationships becoming strained. A former SHoP employee said he was hospitalized with pneumonia after working a 110-hour week and felt pressured to work while his wife was in the middle of childbirth. Most told me they worked an average of 50 hours a week, which rises to 60- to 70-hour weeks leading up to a deadline. Like many other firms, SHoP has an inconsistent overtime policy, and workers do not get paid for the number of hours they put in. The employees know that these problems are not unique to SHoP — to win a contract, architects often submit several rounds of design work to a bidding process, all for free. “It’s a model that always puts architects at a loss, and there’s no protection against it,” says Andrew Daley, a former SHoP employee who is currently an organizer at the machinists union, which AWU would have petitioned to join.

The idea for the union actually began, like many upheavals in recent years, with the protests against the police killing of George Floyd. Many employees had been attending the rallies and contributing to mutual-aid efforts, which spurred conversations closer to home about systemic racism in architecture. Danielle Tellez, an associate architect who has been with SHoP for more than four years, noticed there was a shift in the way people were talking that she hadn’t seen in over a decade of practice; people were not only acknowledging the effects of discrimination in the field, but also talking about concrete changes that needed to be made: salary transparency, broadening the university hiring pool, hiring someone dedicated to diversity efforts in the firm. Employees discussed their ideas in an independent Slack channel and presented them in a companywide town hall.

But the firm’s response disappointed many. SHoP invited diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) consultants to facilitate workshops over the course of eight weeks, which were aimed at establishing “best practices to support, sustain, and build diversity.” Tasha Threat, a facility security officer at SHoP, said that she was happy to listen to her colleagues share personal stories about their identities at these workshops. But for Tellez and many others, these sessions avoided what they really wanted to talk about: structural change. Instead, change was “being assigned to a personal, individual level,” she said. “It made many of us feel unheard.” In a statement to Curbed, SHoP said that it believed that through these and other efforts, it had “become a model for inclusive, equitable, and progressive workplace practices” and had developed hiring policies that increased diversity in the field.

When it became clear that the DE&I initiatives wouldn’t accomplish what they had asked for, and after a round of about 20 layoffs in October 2020 that took many by surprise, employees began discussing the possibility of a union for the first time. As one employee said, “big changes needed to be made to the workplace” before they could even begin to think about how to hire more people of color. Some were nervous about the risk they were taking, especially after the layoffs. “But when presented with two options, either getting laid off or getting fired for organizing, I knew the risk of losing my job was worth it for me,” said one. “My workload wasn’t sustainable, and I wanted to start a family. But instead of leaving to find another job, I wanted to stay because I truly love my work and love SHoP. So I said, ‘Fuck it.’ Unionizing seemed like the only way forward.”

It wasn’t easy to launch a union drive during a pandemic; after a long day at work, employees met one-on-one or with small groups of their colleagues over outdoor drinks or coffees. The conversations that had started with the George Floyd protests in 2020 segued easily into conversations about their workplace conditions, and the organizers were surprised to find that there was overwhelming support for the union, even among the most senior members and across departments. “When my co-workers reached out to me, I had to participate,” said a senior SHoP employee. “Our industry is no longer sustainable … You rarely see older people in architecture because so many people have to leave the profession.”

A cross section of AWU supporters from the profession, academia, and the design community after its December union-drive announcement. Photo: Courtesy of AWU

After the initial rush of internal and public support, SHoP’s organizing employees are disappointed with the current outcome. “We’re heartbroken,” one employee organizer told me. “Leadership did recognize, however, that they wouldn’t have been aware of the problems in the firm without the union efforts.” As they stated in their recent letter, they still believe that unionization can “make architecture more equitable, the profession more just, and our built environment more resilient.”

A spokesperson for SHoP told Curbed, “The decision by the International Association of Machinists and the Architecture Workers United to withdraw their NLRB election petition reflects our staff’s clear desire to determine our collective future together as an employee-owned firm. Any allegations of bad faith campaigning are unfounded and an attempt to undermine the strong majority of SHoP employees who made their views known.”

As for Tellez, she is still hopeful that this experience will bring changes to SHoP as well as across the industry. “Architecture is a very personal thing for all of us,” she said. “Too often our work consumes our entire lives, and because of this, it’s hard for people to see an alternative way of doing things.”

Change may not be too far off. Across New York, employees at other influential architecture firms are currently organizing their workplaces. “We’ve had many people express interest and come to us wanting to learn more [since AWU’s announcement],” said David DiMaria, an organizer with the machinist union. One New York–based architect who had begun organizing at his firm prior to SHoP’s December announcement said that the effort had provided his co-workers with a better understanding of what unionization could look like. At another firm where architects are currently organizing, an architect told me that the fledgling SHoP union drive had challenged the profession’s long-running myth that working in a creative industry excuses or even requires unsustainable work conditions. As he said, “It begins with SHoP, but it definitely doesn’t end with SHoP.”

Inside the Historic Union Drive at SHoP Architects