A body claiming to be the profession’s first trade union for 40 years wants to tackle long hours, low pay and discrimination. But what are the chances of it making a difference? Kate Youde reports
‘Bring on the revolution,’ says Piers Taylor, welcoming architecture’s new trade union.
The Section of Architectural Workers (SAW) sits within the London-based United Voices of the World Union (UVW) which seeks to tackle poor working practices. But does the profession, which already has representative membership bodies such as the RIBA, even need a union?
The answer is yes and urgently, says Taylor, founder of Invisible Studio. ‘We work in an exploitative culture – long hours and low pay, where a taxi ride home and a takeaway pizza is supposed to be recompense,’ he says.
The new order proposed by SAW is one of ‘systemic change’. It argues that the sector is in ‘crisis’, with architects facing unpaid overtime, ‘stagnating’ wages, overwork, a ‘toxic culture of stress’, discrimination and harassment.
SAW claims to have members working as many as 60 hours overtime per week and says it will campaign against the phenomenon of practices asking staff to opt out of the EU Working Time Directive. Earlier this year, an AJ survey of more than 3,000 professionals revealed that nearly a quarter had sacrificed their legal right to work a maximum of 48 hours a week.
Practices that rely on extra hours unfairly force down fees, making it harder for fair employers to compete
Roland Karthaus, director of Matter Architecture, says a code of silence about the ‘overwork culture in architecture’ has allowed it to persist. ‘Early in their careers, friends of ours would regularly sleep in their workplace in what they misguidedly believed was a commitment to a higher cause,’ he says. ‘This is all a cynical myth.
‘Architects who don’t have a life outside architecture don’t know how to design buildings for people; and practices that rely on extra hours unfairly force down fees making it harder for fair employers to compete.’
He says his practice welcomes the exposure of these issues and supports ‘employees organising themselves to fight back’.
Paul Lewis, founder of Altham Lewis, agrees action is needed to combat unethical practices. But he suggests that, rather than having a separate union, ‘it should be the job of the RIBA to protect architects’ rights’.
Nevertheless, he hopes the new group acts as a ‘shock to the RIBA’ and puts pressure on the ‘useless’ body to get its act together. ‘It’s wrong so many architects are working such long hours and nobody is doing anything about it,’ he says. ‘The RIBA could do [something] with a very simple change to its chartered practices requirements.’
Lewis suggests that while, historically, the RIBA has been ‘turning a blind eye’, it should be making all chartered practices keep to the working time directive. ‘How can the institute charter practices and recognise them if they are exploiting people?’ he asks.
The RIBA could do something about long hours with a simple change to its chartered practices requirements
Yet union organisers are clear that they are ‘with the RIBA, not against it’, and are urging its president, Alan Jones, to champion sustainable professional culture.
Responding to the union’s challenge, RIBA executive director of professional services Adrian Dobson insists part of the institute’s role is to ‘give a voice to architects and practices’. He adds: ‘Our codes set strict requirements in areas such as fairness and equality in the workplace.
‘All RIBA chartered practices need to comply with the requirements set out by the RIBA Chartered Practice Employment Policy Guide, which commits practices to delivering the highest professional, ethical and best-practice standards in architecture. This includes paying all employees – including freelance staff and students – at least the Living Wage.’
He points out that the RIBA has launched gender pay gap guidance and worked with the Architects Benevolent Society to publish a mental wellbeing toolkit.
Even so, SAW seeks to address what it sees as a lack of support around mental health and also wants workers to be able to follow their ‘ethical principles’.
The Architects Climate Action Network, which campaigns on issues surrounding the climate emergency, believes unionisation would help the sector’s workforce combat the ‘toxic professional culture’ which makes it difficult for people to speak out.
‘At a time when the work we do has become intertwined with multiple crises, it is vital that employees, particularly those in less senior positions, have the confidence and the support network to voice their concerns,’ a spokesperson says. ‘As associates, architects, assistants and technicians, we are often asked to contribute to projects that have devastating human and environmental impacts.’
But Brian Waters, immediate past president of the Association of Consultant Architects, does not think a union will either contribute much or make much difference to conditions. ‘Also, to mix up cleaners and support staff with the professional staff seems to be total confusion of what they are trying to do,’ he says.
Grimshaw partner Mark Middleton also questions the value of the union to its members. He says the profession, through the RIBA and industry press, has done ‘a really good job’ in moving issues such as gender equality, social mobility and pay to the top of the agenda, and that Grimshaw takes staff welfare seriously.
‘Against this landscape, I do not see that an architects’ union will make a significant difference in the raising or addressing of these issues,’ he says. ‘I am not convinced that the new union will have the numbers to affect practices in the way it wants or have the financial muscle to support its new members legally or practically in the way that traditional trade unions do.’
I’d like to think that our staff wouldn’t eed to join the union. If they did, we would certainly take stock of the reasons why
In response to such criticism, a SAW spokesperson said: ‘The architectural profession has been without an effective trade union for more than 40 years. It will take time for employers and more senior architects to see that when workers gain power through unionising, we are all set to benefit.
‘The UVW and its sister union the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain are not like traditional 20th-century trade unions, which rely on workplace density and the withdrawal of labour.
‘Instead, by facilitating and equipping workers to directly organise and campaign for themselves, they’ve had success after success with previously “un-unionisable” workers such as migrant cleaners and gig economy workers.’
Since launching last month, the union has already signed up 70 members (and 80 turned up for the Open Meeting earlier this week). And in certain areas of the profession, efforts are already underway to tackle some of the issues it has raised.
For instance, later this month the London Practice Forum (LPF), an informal collective of 21 practices that share knowledge, experience and resources, will publish a set of ethical principles for how its members should operate, treat staff and approach procurement. Practices that want to be members will not be allowed to have an opt-out requirement for the working time directive.
RCKa founding director Russell Curtis, who came up with the idea for the LPF, says the fact people feel the need to unionise is ‘an indictment of the state of the profession’.
He adds: ‘What’s quite nice is London Practice Forum comprises predominantly practice leaders … and if we can tackle this from the top and the bottom that can only be a good thing.’
If other practices adhere to LPF’s principles, they will be able to sign up to the commitments and join the forum. As Ben Cousins, director at Cousins & Cousins and one of the forum’s founding members, suggests, a union would not be needed if all employers adhered to the standards.
‘I’d like to think that our staff wouldn’t feel the need to join the architecture union,’ he says, ‘and, if they did, we would certainly take stock of the reasons why.’
If the union gains traction, the sector as a whole may be forced to assess its working practices.