“I Felt It Was the Right Thing To Do”

Architecture firms don’t usually make labor history, but it happened earlier this month when employees at Bernheimer Architecture agreed to form a union. It is a first for the industry and comes six months after an unsuccessful attempt to unionize at SHoP. The initiative was done through the auspices of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in collaboration with Architectural Workers United (AWU), a grass-roots organizing group. Whether this leads to other successful efforts remains to be seen, but it is clearly a step forward for labor in the architecture sector. According to Curbed, AWU is “currently in talks with up to ten other firms across New York.” 

The agreement at Bernheimer was interesting, for two reasons. The size of the firm—Bernheimer Architecture has just 22 employees, while SHoP has at least five times that—and its apparent receptivity to the very idea of a union. Last week I reached out to Andrew Bernheimer, founder and principal, to get his unique perspective on the events in his office. We talked about how the process played out, why it happened at a firm where employee complaints are minimal, and what it means for the field of architecture going forward.

MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
AB: Andrew Bernheimer


Tell me the backstory on how the unionization happened and what the process was internally. 


I was notified in June that the employees had organized and were asking for voluntary recognition of the union. I wasn’t aware of that until then. They didn’t loop me in, because it wasn’t necessary or appropriate for them to do so at that point in the process. When they were ready to tell me that they had organized and were asking for voluntary recognition was the moment that I found out that they were organizing. 

I was not surprised at all. Over the last year and a half or so, with the efforts at SHoP and the work of Peggy Deamer and the Architecture Lobby, I was well aware that there has been a movement for architectural workers to organize. One of the people who now works at my practice had been part of the SHoP organizing effort. So when I hired that person, I was pretty realistic about the fact that this would likely occur at my office—I just didn’t know when. 

During the summer, after I was notified, there were discussions back and forth about what it meant. And obviously questions about who would be part of it, out of the 22 people here, and how that would work. I was also speaking to colleagues and getting some legal insights. At a point in late July, I got enough information where I felt ethically, professionally, and financially that it was the right thing to do, and it had the potential to be an incredibly positive thing. 


What does it mean for you, running a 20-person firm?


Well, it’s to be determined what it means for me. In speaking to colleagues and other people who know about the legal aspects, there was nothing in it for me that made me nervous. I asked them questions about what it would mean to the business side of things. And I think someone who had experience with unions said, “Don’t worry, it’s not existential. Your doors aren’t gonna close because your firm organized.”

I don’t know what it will mean, because it’s not been done before. But what I will tell you, Martin, it’s something I’ve thought about for a while now, and this comes out of my own personal experiences, a long time ago, working for others. And it definitely comes out of teaching, seeing what the world of architectural education ingrains in those who create architecture. As a teacher, I see imbalances every day of the school year.

1490-Southern-Boulevard courtyard

Designed by Bernheimer Architecture, 1490 Southern Boulevard is an affordable housing complex for seniors located in the south Bronx. The project won a 2021 Housing Design Award from AIA New York. Photo by Albert Vecerka.


And how is that reflected?


It’s the taught belief that you work long and hard hours because you are an artist and you will produce something beautiful, and you will detail it and make it fantastic and poetic—no matter what. When I was in school, I was very pleased to stay up all night and work around the clock. Very pleased to satisfy myself and my teachers with how much work I was doing. And this ethos still exists today in architecture school. That same kind of mindset where you do not stop until you have reached a level of proficiency and perfection that is frankly unrealistic. It’s not fair. And I think it’s harmful. 

This year I asked my students, “How many of you guys have pulled all-nighters?” Everyone’s hand went up. “How many of you have pulled two all-nighters?” None of the hands went down. “Five all-nighters?” and a couple of hands go down, and they’re all laughing. I’m like, it’s not that funny. Because what happens is, you’re in architecture school and you’re working. You’re paying X thousands of dollars a year in tuition to get educated in this profession and get a professional degree, and then when you graduate—I remember this, I was like, “They’re gonna pay me? I’m gonna get paid to do what I just love doing in school?” Because a lot of us love this. I’m not sure everyone loves architecture who’s in architecture, but a lot of us do. 

And the idea that I would come out of school and then get paid to do what I was just paying someone else to teach me about was like a miracle. So you go into this work environment that you feel very privileged to secure a job in. They’re gonna pay you to do architecture. And then when they squeeze you to work extra hours … well, a year ago you were paying for this, now you’re getting paid. You’re gonna work those extra hours. 

Architecture school sets the example that you work as many hours as you need to, to do the work properly. I think it starts there. But there’s a broader picture of correction that also needs to happen. This has been on my mind for a long while now, and the labor organizing just fits as a puzzle piece into that kind of composition, to try to correct the harmful practices of our profession.


I thought it was interesting, though, that the first successful organizing happened at a firm where a lot of these complaints didn’t exist. 


I know, but that’s the dilemma. Let’s take the hypothetical practice that treats their employees like shit, that extracts every hour out of them above and beyond what they should be expected to work. That firm is probably profitable or breaking even precisely because of those labor practices. So that firm is in a place where it can’t afford to not exploit its labor. That practice isn’t gonna sign up for this stuff, because it’s gonna harm them. There may also be dubious ethics at play in firm leadership at places that exploit their labor. 

So if you wait for a staff—that’s in a place where the practices are unfair—to successfully organize, they’re going to have to do it through the conventional methods of organizing and then holding a formal vote. My understanding of the process now is that forcing an organizing unit to a vote is more aggressive and a longer process. 

When you ask a group to go to a vote, that’s typically when the anti-union efforts manifest. And that’s how it plays out in all sorts of places across other industries. You don’t voluntarily recognize them. You force them to vote, then use the time while they’re organizing to form the union, to explain to everyone why they shouldn’t form a union. I had very little interest in this process, from the start. Or you could wait for a really terrible firm to see the light, recognize the union, and truncate this process, but that’s not likely to happen in places where the practices aren’t good. 

Another example is a firm where complaints are diminished, and where the ownership doesn’t really think it’s necessary: “Why would you need it if you have things so good?” But that doesn’t do anything to change the industry; that’s status quo. So, knowing that I think I have a more humane environment and that people are happy here and have certain benefits that they may not get elsewhere, and thinking, “Well, I set a good example, so other people should follow it, but not with a union!”—that doesn’t institutionalize anything. I could just defer responsibility and say, “We have a good firm here. I don’t see any reason why it would make anything better and where you really want it to be better is in places that have shitty practices. Let them do it.” Well, that’s just the status quo. So then my choice was to recognize them and say, “We run a humane firm. We want to set an example.” Again, not to be naive or idealistic, maybe there’s an element of possibility in my mindset …


By the way, you’re allowed to be idealistic.


Right. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. But there is a balance between the idealistic and the pragmatic, and maybe they fight each other, but the thought that there’s actually a way forward to do this collaboratively is also very important. Architecture is so deeply collaborative now. Everything we do is actually in concert with other people. In fact, schools have changed. Our projects are much more collaborative than when I was in school. Thirty years ago, if you collaborated with someone on a school project, you were a Martian. Now we have to carve out time for people to work on their own project by themselves, so they’re getting enough solo authorship. Everything is collaborative, and that reflects the profession, that reflects how we design our buildings. We don’t work in the vacuum. We don’t design something and then drop it out into the world. We actually have to work with allied professionals and we have to work with multiple architects, experts of all types. 

I could take a drawing set from one of our buildings that might be 300 pages long. And if I want you to show you what I drew on that drawing set, I would show you a blank piece of paper, because I didn’t draw a thing. It’s the people who work here who drew every sheet of that drawing set. So our work is more than collaborative. So why wouldn’t we be able to collaborate on this effort of labor organization positively and show that it’s actually a way forward for us—and potentially for many other practices? That the collaborative work that we do in our profession can be done within our offices themselves, at this level. We already do it on our projects. Why can’t we work and create a business that’s collaboratively beneficial? 

And from a personal standpoint, it was something that I believe in. If I didn’t own my firm, and I was working at a firm, I would be in their group. So then at what point do you say: My personal beliefs and my business, are those incompatible? Does that make me sort of weirdly conflicted? I believe all of this, but then when I go to work, I have to throw all those beliefs aside, because I have to look at the spreadsheet and see how much rent I have to make? 


But there are fiscal laws of gravity.


Of course there are. But if the business of architecture can’t survive something that’s equitable and ethical and positive, then what the hell’s wrong with our profession?


And has anybody reached out to you, people who run other firms that are in possibly similar situations?


One firm owner said, “I’m really interested in how this happens,” almost as if they wanted to encourage their own people to do it. That makes me so happy. Again, we haven’t finished the hard work, the negotiation of the contract in a collective bargaining agreement. And that might take months to get that ironed out. But that’s where it all comes together. I was nervous. I actually asked a friend, “Are people going to send me nasty emails asking, what the F did you just do?” I haven’t gotten one yet. 

Featured image: 1490 Southern Boulevard. Photo by Albert Vecerka.


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