In late October, the Guardian’s architecture critic Oliver Wainwright reported that the United Kingdom’s first architecture union had been formed. The Section of Architecture Workers (UVW-SAW) is a section of the United Voices of the World, a new model of grassroots trade union that supports the expansion of union ideals to professions and sectors which traditionally did not have such representation. The launch of the union, and the reasons behind it, serve as the latest episode in long-running concern over the working conditions faced by architects in the UK and across the world.
In a series of recent surveys by the Architect’s Journal, 24% of survey respondents were victims of racism in the workplace, while women were paid 24% less than men, and 1 in 7 experienced sexual discrimination or harassment. Regarding working hours, 40% worked over 10 hours overtime per week, while 23% had agreed in contract negotiations to waive their European Union Directive right to work no more than 48 hours per week. Almost one quarter who signed the clause said they believed it was necessary to secure the job.
It is not surprising that such conditions would lead to the demands, and ultimate creation, of a union to represent and defend workers’ rights. The UVW-SAW is, however, one of very few examples of attempts to unionize architects. In the 1970s, the New Architecture Movement encouraged professionals to join a division of the AUEW engineers’ union, an effort which was unsuccessful. The UVW-SAW, however, has sought to diversify its membership by opening its doors to members beyond architects.
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As union member Jake told the Guardian for their column, “we’re open to everyone involved in the production of architecture from the model-maker to the office cleaner and admin staff, everyone should be united under the same umbrella.”
While UK architects are already associated with member organizations such as the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) and ARB (Architects’ Registration Board), the UVW-SAW offers a closer-defined role and mission, offering free in-house legal advice, employment law and organizer training, workplace negotiation, and skill sharing, in return for a membership fee ranging between £6 and £10 per month depending on income.
Having officially launched in recent weeks, the group has over 50 members so far, united under a list of demands that includes regulated working hours, transparent pay structures, stable contracts, accountable employers, and ethical practice. As union member Jake continued to tell the Guardian, “Employers will say that they can only afford to pay low wages because of the low fees they’re getting. But the reason they can take on that work at such a low rate is because they’re exploiting their workforce. If the workforce was unionized, then it would raise the value of architectural labor overall.”
The initiative deserves to gather momentum. For too long, architects have accepted their fate as inevitable; the low pay, long hours and lack of agency seen as part and parcel of their calling. Rather than perpetuating the vicious cycle, by continually undercutting each other and trampling on their employees’ rights, it’s about time architects came together and recognised the collective value of their labour.
-Oliver Wainwright, Architecture Critic, The Guardian
The UVW-SAW is currently open for membership, and more information can be found on the official website here.