Dezeen Magazine

"Middle-class guilt is weaponised to keep architectural labourers from demanding reform"

A disdain for trade unions is preventing architects from challenging the industry's low standards of workers' rights, argues Phineas Harper.

In February 2012, a mysterious website, appeared. Now offline, the site enabled disgruntled architects to anonymously whistle-blow on the conditions in their practices. Although the authenticity of the complaints could not be verified (neutering any scandal that might otherwise have broken in the architectural press) few starchitects escaped a scathing put-down.

Nobody, however, was surprised. We all know of pompous prima-donna architecture directors who treat their subordinates with disdain and disrespect. We all know of bullying, managerial tantrums, impossible internal deadlines, all-nighters and unpaid internships that seem endemic in our profession, even within the most lauded firms.

What kind of industry produces a website like Arch Leaks? The rapidity with which its fora were populated is indicative of architecture lagging woefully behind other professions in employment practices. It points to the acute lack of routes to meaningful recourse available for architectural staff and begs the question, why is our profession, which I firmly believe to be saturated with people passionate about making the world a better place, nonetheless so shoddy on workers' rights?

Why is trade unionism such an anathema to architects?

In 1982, an architect kneels with a metre-long set square and rolled drawings. He wears a skinny blue tie and a determined expression. Clustered around him around are a bin man, dinner lady, groundskeeper, care worker and others.

This photograph was taken shortly into the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, for a trade-union poster campaigning against the sweeping privatisation of public services including local-authority architecture offices. Shoulder to shoulder with other tradespeople, the architect is not portrayed as an independent glamorous auteur but as a regular guy taking collective action in solidarity with his peers. It is the only depiction I know showing an architect as a trade unionist.

The Union Of Construction Allied Trades & Technicians (UCATT) was absorbed into the British mega union, Unite on the first of January this year. UCATT had been encouraging architects to become members for several years but take up was poor. "We don't actually know the exact number of architects who are members", Barckley Sumner, UCATT's former spokesperson confessed to me, "...but it's very low."

Why is trade unionism such an anathema to architects? We know our industry is riddled with exploitation yet turn our backs on the organisations which have successfully supported workers across numerous other industries? Why is the man in the skinny blue tie such an anomaly?

"We're actively finding opportunities to unionise architects," Keefer Dunn, National Organiser of the new American alternative professional body The Architecture Lobby, told me. "But most are reluctant to think of themselves as workers. We still cling to this myth of the gentlemanly professional."

For Dunn, architects are in love with a fantasy. Even those at the bottom of the pecking order fancy themselves as the well-heeled heroes of yesteryear born into wealth, practicing their art at leisure and unconcerned with humdrum matters such as paying a mortgage.

Harriet Harriss of the Royal College of Art agrees. "There's a lot of snobbery in architecture about unions," she said. "We are labouring under the misapprehension that we're doing OK, when we're not." Harriss is part of a group attempting to create a new British architectural union from scratch. "If one of our members needs us," she explained, "we will have solicitors on our books who are able to look at the legal case. Whether their employer is a practice or a university, breaching maternity pay, sick leave or contractual rights, we'll be able to represent that person."

The elephant in the room is, of course, class

Attempting a similar mission are Architectural Workers (AW), an anonymous group of junior designers working in London. We exchanges encrypted emails via Riseup, a tool more typically used by anarchists and hardcore climate-change activists to organise direct action.

AW's focus is campaigning against the demolition of council housing estates but their secondary agenda is fighting for the rights of their peers. "Our rights are not given, they have had to be fought for," they said. "Architecture is ‘white-collar' work – yet we want to re-think what this means for those on the lowest rung of the ladder."

The elephant in the room is, of course, class. There is a widespread presumption that everyone within architecture is firmly middle class. Any meaningful conversation about unionism in practice is quickly stalled by its implicit class undertones. "We see unions as a working class thing and because we think we're all terribly middle class, there is a level of disdain about them," said Harriss. "It's about that distinction between being an industry and a profession. Unions have always been seen as serving blue-collar workers and we think of ourselves as white collar."

For Dunn it has become imperative to end this distinction, which he sees as meaningless in a contemporary economy: "We are professionals in the eyes of the law, but more substantively, we are workers in the Marxist sense – we have to sell our labour to survive. Having a kind of 'working class identity' really says that the thing that we're doing is not in itself socially progressive – it's our workplace that is the site of our political agency. The political agency of architecture is not in the buildings. That would be like a steelworker saying that the political agency of what they do is somehow in the steel. Your agency as an architect is as a worker."

Destructive, unfair working conditions will not resolve themselves without action

It suits the bosses of abusive firms to perpetuate the idea that "we are all middle class here", as if architectural workers have nothing to gain from, and no moral right to, collectivisation. Middle-class guilt is weaponised to keep architectural labourers from demanding reform. It benefits exploitative directors to insist us that unionism is beneath architects' social standing, that we can have nothing in common with the workers depicted in that crumbling eighties poster.

The destructive, unfair working conditions common in architecture will not resolve themselves without action. New institutions that can galvanise the collective power of the profession at-large are necessary to push back against a culture of exploitative labour practices. But the challenge is more profound than merely establishing a pressure group or online whistle-blowing forum – there must first be a fundamental unpicking of the status of architects, and of architecture itself.

An extended version of this column was published in the Real Review.