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A PROFESSION'S FUTURE IN UNION?

AGENDA

Imagine the scene 10 years from now. The world of architecture has been transformed. The wealth and influence in the commercial sector has been transferred from the major practice directors to the foot soldiers: the CAD monkeys, the year-out students.

The underpaid masses of architecture have taken over the asylum. But now they're not short of cash. Now they don't sit in cramped banks behind RSI-inducing computers. Now they are free to approach any architect in the office as and when they like. Watch out, oh ennobled architects. The peasants have revolted!

This almost inconceivable world is not the product of some young architect's overworked imagination. There is a trade unionist who believes that organised labour could go some way to substantially improving the lot of many in the architectural melée.

And that trade unionist works for UCATT. What, UCATT? The builders' union?

Yes, the very same. While the other trade unions turn themselves into unwieldy megaliths representing unrelated skills and trades, UCATT boss Alan Ritchie has spotted an opportunity to stay within the sector he knows, while also moving white collar.

'We're a construction union, so we've got to look at the whole industry, ' he said. 'Anywhere that is not organised, we are interested in getting involved.' To a casual observer, Ritchie's aim of unionising architecture may seem daft.

But long-term architecturewatchers seem more convinced by the idea that the profession could soon become unionised.

REID Architecture's director of research Paul Warner, for one, believes that it makes a lot of sense. 'This dates back to when Thatcher got rid of the mandatory fee scale for architects, ' he told the AJ. 'Fees have halved and salaries have stagnated since then. It does push towards the sense that architects are being exploited.

'I'm not sure people are quite ready for this, but some of the salaries are so minimal that is does not seem a stupid idea. I could see a unionised workforce in 10 years time.' And this relaxed attitude is echoed by RIBA president Jack Pringle, himself a significant employer with his practice Pringle Brandon. 'Some 80 per cent of the profession works for practices with less than 10 employees, so I'm not sure it will be for them. But you can imagine it working for some architects, ' he said.

'But if it did take off, then we would have a meeting with the union's representatives - not people that we have met before - and I think that would be really very interesting.' So it would seem that architecture's biggest employers don't feel too uncomfortable with the idea. Could Ritchie be on to something?

The last word should go to architecture's veteran maverick Chris Roche, one of the few long-term advocates of an architects' union. He said:

'If architects want to be taken seriously by the government they need to demonstrate connections with unions.

I'll happily be president.' You heard it here first.

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