Snøhetta Workers Vote Against Unionizing

While unionization efforts have now fallen short at Snøhetta and SHoP Architects, they illustrate a beleaguered workforce antsy for change in a profession often grueling toward the rank and file.

Svart hotel in Norway by Snøhetta. Rendering courtesy of Snøhetta/Plompmozes

For aspiring architects, entering the field and securing stable employment can be a no-frills proposition. Entry-level jobs usually require burning the midnight oil for a meager salary, often to carry out tedious executive decisions from managers who view junior staff as disposable (and often don’t hesitate to conduct layoffs when projects wrap up). Then there’s the lack of diversity and imperious bosses who might put in a negative word for whistleblowers. It can be treacherous for those not well-versed in its inner workings—circumstances that make a decent case for unionizing.

That’s the path Snøhetta’s stateside workers sought in May, when they filed with the National Labor Relations Board to form a union and join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Known for its visionary architecture and landscape design in far-flung locales, the Norwegian firm was set to become the first private-sector architecture practice to get a union vote in more than 50 years. Despite this, the firm opted against recognizing the union and hired a union-busting law firm. That perhaps led to the unionization efforts ultimately falling short—workers across the firm’s two offices in New York and San Francisco recently voted against unionizing, 35-29. 

The Blanton Museum of Art. Photography by Sloan Breeden/courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin

Unions for architectural workers are common globally—France, Portugal, Australia, and Turkey all have them—but stateside efforts have largely failed. SHoP Architects launched a historic drive with a campaign led by Architectural Workers United (AWU) last year, but their efforts ended a month after going public. Whispers of misinformation and “fear of the unknown” allegedly colored conversations there—one associate principal anticipated financial blowback. 

SHoP and Snøhetta are both well-regarded firms with positive cultures, but the job’s grueling demands can still push employees to the brink. “Architecture is a very personal thing for all of us,” Danielle Tellez, an associate architect with SHoP, told Curbed last year. “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.” Organizing efforts may have stalled for now, but architects eager for change haven’t lost hope. At the very least, both episodes prove that “organizing toward making architecture more equitable, the profession more just, and our built environment more resilient,” as the AWU website states, is gaining momentum.

Top of Alpbachtal at Hornbarn by Snøhetta. Phtography by Christian Flatscher
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