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Do architects need a trade union?


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.  


Readers' comments (6)

  • A lone finger, even if a middle finger salute to employers, as it seems in this case, is weak. Joined together as a fist it becomes stronger. Strength in numbers, collective strength and solidarity is measured by the numbers who join this new union. And then employers have to recognise the union and allow their employees to join, for it to even attempt to make a difference.

    The RIBA is not a union. It is a private members’ club that some architects chose to join, but membership is not mandatory to practise as an architect, it is entirely optional. ARB registration is obviously a mandatory legal obligation. Many architects ask what the RIBA does for them, with their handsome subscriptions, which turns the RIBA into a multimillion pound organisation employing scores of employees. The RIBA’s mission statement is suitably strategic and vague enough to escape close scrutiny, but it is not a workers’ union...let’s be empathetically clear about that.

    The strength of a workers’ union resides in it size and financial resources, with the latter hopefully being a consequence of the former. The ultimate power of a workers’ union is its ability to withhold the toil of large swathes of the workforce from employers, with the aim of disrupting business as usual enough to force change, such as a pay rise.

    Historically, unions and social revolution have shaped the modern workplace for the better. Slavery and child labour was abolished, in the UK at least, for example. Many sacrifices were made by brave people, some of whom made the ultimate sacrifice, for the employment rights and privileges that employees enjoy today. This should not be underestimated or trivialised, or we will be told that architectural unionists are the ‘enemy within’, delaying or preventing the delivery of vital infrastructure that threatens our national economic prosperity, when they go on strike for better conditions.

    However, both recent and more distant history has taught us the risks of militant industrial action, from the miners’ strike back to the Luddites. Technological progress, or political ideology, is usually behind most workplace changes, cited by the capitalists as necessary efficiency improvements, which should boost profits. The collapse of capitalism in 2008 has introduced more systemic and cynical changes to the labour market, in the guise of excessive Neoliberalism, financialisation and inequality.

    We are in a state of extreme flux, in an overpopulated world, facing existential catastrophe and political cynicism, which could well usher in a new dark age. Forming a union seems an anachronistic reaction indeed, as it invariably seeks to preserve the status quo, which is now impossible. It is quite a negative and futile gesture under the circumstances.

    A far more positive gesture is needed. Learning from medieval history seems more appropriate. The response to the Black Death, which decimated a third of the population of Europe, in just a few short years, was the foundation of dozens of educational establishments (eg many Oxbridge colleges, some founded by local guilds).

    Should architectural workers not be focusing on collectivising their resources in order to retrain for other industries, in the face of automation (eg parametric design) and many other threats to their traditional roles. One advantage of a architectural education is its liberal versatility and transferability to other sectors, and we might even get another Oxbridge college out of it, we some help from benefactors. Foster & Rogers College, founded 2020?!

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  • It would be very easy for the RIBA to enforce compliance with the code Adrian Dobson refers to. Add-in prevention of employee oppressive practices and there would be no need for a trade union.
    If the RIBA is not for all architects it can only be for employers - which looks very likely.

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  • When asking the question 'Do architect's need a trade union', the article fails to engage meaningfully with the stated aim of the union to organise ALL workers in the architectural sector as a collective, and the reason for doing so. The article also does not even attempt to try to answer its own question by asking any members of the group concerned, i.e. the workers themselves.
    Given the AJ's track record of investigative journalism, it would be interesting to see a follow-up to this based on accounts of people directly affected rather than business owners or advocates for established organisations.

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  • I must agree with one of Viscount Goderich’s comment, namely that the RIBA is indeed not at all a union. However, the comment that “Forming a union seems an anachronistic reaction...” is, I believe, misinterpreting what a union is: it does not ‘invariably [seek] to preserve status quo’. On the contrary, it seeks to give greater power to workers and introduce a fairer equilibrium in the relationships between employees and employers - certainly not the status quo (cf. Mr. Schumacher’s comments at the recent Dezeen Day conference).

    Workers rights and RIBA guidelines do exist, but architectural workers are sometimes not aware of them, or consider themselves unable to tackle difficult work situations on their own - in the current order of practice, they lack political agency. A union is precisely the kind of structure that provides them with the capacity to assert their rights and engage in meaningful discussions with employers with regards to their work conditions.

    Quite frankly, a union should not just exist because working conditions in an industry are so bad that its existence becomes necessary (I am now referring to some of the other comments made by professionals in the article). Many industries have a form of organised workers representation, and if anything, in best of times it still performs as a safeguard.

    There is no reason why the architectural industry should be immune from labour issues, even if some seem to think that it is.

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  • In response to Kirti's comments I feel duty bound to clarify my previous views. For a union to have any real power it must seek a very large membership (as Adrian asserts). So, forming a new union is regressive, as it has to build up support, which could take decades. Surely, it is far better for 'architectural workers' to ally themselves with an already large and powerful union, such as Prospect for example.

    Prospect has 145,000 members from across a range of professions, including engineers, scientists, managers and civil servants. It seems a suitable union for salaried architects and other architectural workers to join. The trick then will to be to ensure that the 'architecture branch' has as many members as possible (one finger of the much larger fist).

    The fist is necessary to 'punch' unscrupulous architectural employers who practise unlawful and unfair employment practices (such as dismissing young women when they become pregnant), by taking them to Employment Tribunals (and higher courts) and ensuring that they receive negative financially impacts to encourage them to improve their employment practices.

    Many employers, and particularly large ones, adopt a cynical approach to labour relations and use a modus operandi of sharp practice. They will unfairly dismiss employees for whatever reason, in the knowledge that the employee will rarely fight back. If they do, they will defend the indefensible in the knowledge that an ET legal action will usual only cost them £5-10k, plus that again in legal fees for a simple case that is settled before hearings start, for example.

    The ET deals only with unfair dismissal and statutory law (Employment Rights Act 1996), but large judgments and settlements are awarded for extreme cases, usually involving sexual harassment, orientation or discrimination. The ET was intended to resolve disputes without lawyers, but no sane employer with enter one without legal representation.. This means the claimant will have to 'lawyer up' as well. Legal fees are billed by the 6-minute billable unit (the hour is decimalised), so a lawyer will probably charge you for 6-minutes to read your email and at least 6-minutes to reply to it. At a modest rate of £300/hour that is £60 for 12-minutes of their time. It is a well paid profession and QCs are often paid £1,000/hour and more (so 12 minutes of their time would cost £200 or more).

    Consequently, it is necessary for claimants to have large financial resources to contemplate any legal action, as their legal fees will be high and if they lose their case, 'costs follow the event', which means that the loser pays the winner's legal costs. It is an adversarial system in which rich defendants can easily financially exhaust the poorer party by stringing out the dispute for as long as possible, possibly eventually settling on the court room steps. In this David and Goliath scenario, David may win but will end up paying high, possibly ruinous, legal costs if he loses.

    Most people don't want to go to court for this and other reasons. And Charles Dickens' satire of the Victorian Chancery Court (Equity, dealing with wills and trusts), 'Bleak House' (1852), includes the contention that one should "Suffer any wrong that can be done to you, rather than come here!". Consequently, it is usually necessary for salaried employees to have the support of their union, if they have a good case that the union's legal advisors think is arguable and winnable. However, many unions will abandon members, as their financial resources would be drained with extensive legal disputes.

    What is probably needed in the architectural industry are some seminal test cases that send out the right messages to unscrupulous employers. Unfortunately, the political climate in recent years is not helping and the Coalition government (remember them?!) introduced a fee of £1,200 for claimants to bring a claim in the ET (this was contested by a union and overturned in the Supreme Court).

    They also increased the court fees in higher courts from a few thousand pounds for six-figure money claims (e.g. breach of employment contract) to £10k (they wanted to increase it to £20k, but that has not happened yet, largely due to protestations from the legal profession). Such high court fees arguable deny access to justice and are contrary to the rule of law. Although, the availability of litigation funding and insurance is on the increase.

    Finally, it is essential for salaried architects, who should have a reasonable knowledge of contract law (and some of tort) to understand their contract of employment, which they should obviously have read before they signed it! Their contract of employment is essentially a contract that is subject to the norms of contract law, but it is a special type of contract because it requires a high level of 'trust and confidence' between the employer and employee.

    There are five 'fair' reasons for dismissing employees, but the final one of 'some other substantial reason' is very broad, and could be characterised as a personality clash, for example, when the real reason is that the employee refused to pull all-nighters and excessive unpaid overtime. See you in court!

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  • As an architect and trades unionist for over three decades, I’m delighted that architects are discovering the benefits of a union.
    As a youngish architect in the 1980s I joined what is now Prospect, and learned more about health and safety, equal opportunities, employment law and the environment than I ever have from RIBA (which I also joined). When colleagues of mine were unfairly sacked in the 1990s, Prospect secured them many £k of compensation. I’m now retired, but still a member of both. They both have their uses – but if I was still working and in trouble, I know which one I’d rely on for support.

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