Today, workers at the New York–based firm Sage and Coombe Architects announced the successful formation of a union—the second private architecture firm in the United States to do so. Employees within the studio's bargaining unit, now officially the SCA Union, began exploring the process a little over a year ago, inspired both by well-documented challenges of equity, diversity, and workload in the industry and by labor movements sweeping the U.S. After the bargaining unit unanimously requested recognition earlier this summer, it received voluntary recognition from the firm's partners—Jennifer Sage, FAIA, and Peter Coombe, AIA—in late August.
“I think our bargaining unit, broadly speaking, feels the systemic concerns that exist across our industry with the nature of labor and architecture,” says Lee Kuhn, AIA, associate and director of sustainability at the firm. Kuhn, who spoke on behalf of the SCA Union, explains that the effort was also driven by "the fact we feel invested in our office and want to build upon that investment."
Discussions around unionization arose organically, expresses Caitlin Watson, AIA, an associate at Sage and Coombe speaking on behalf of the SCA Union. "There were conversations happening—as there were at many offices—for a long time about what we hope to see for the future of our work within a profession that's very difficult to stay in.”
As those discussions evolved and plans to request recognition solidified, organizers worked to ensure that all members of the potential bargaining unit were included in discussions, laying the groundwork for a unanimous vote to unionize. "We made all of our decisions by consensus, which actually meant that it took sometimes a lot longer to move forward, but also that we didn't move forward with things unless everyone felt okay and comfortable with it," Watson says.
The organizing process was also supported by the office's "collegial nature," Watson says, and compact size. "Everyone in the office came to those conversations with a different preexisting level of education about unions and what a union can do or can be," Kuhn says. "So, the small size really let us tailor those discussions to our values as employees at our firm.”
As the SCA Union works to negotiate a contract, members plan to foster an open dialogue rather than propose a list of demands."We're looking forward to solidifying the things that we already love about the office while taking steps toward some of the changes that we'd like to see across the profession more broadly," says Marianne Nepsund, a designer at Sage and Coombe speaking on behalf of the SCA Union.
"Because of the nature of our work at Sage and Coombe, our practice tends to attract people who are very civically minded," Nepsund continues. "Having a union at our office can provide a framework to exercise those civic ideals within. That’s an exciting prospect because we, like many others, care a lot about the value that we are bringing to society as architects. As the density of union membership increases, we’re also really excited about the opportunity that presents to advocate for the value of design collectively as a profession.”
Lee echoes the sentiment, explaining that the process has also helped the Sage and Coombe office examine assumptions sometimes held about unionizing in the workplace. "I think in the U.S. a lot of people, when they first think about organized labor, think of unions as a corrective for extreme labor malpractice or abuse," he says. "For myself and our whole group [organizing has] been a process of reframing what organized labor can be. It's about the right to a contract and certain kind of relationship with the office and industry more broadly. It isn’t, in our case, indicative of terrible problems. It’s also about reinforcing the things that are already good.”
The SCA Union follows the workers and organizers at Bernheimer Architecture in New York, who formed the country's first private-sector architecture union in 2022. Workers at SHoP Architects in New York also led a unionizing effort in 2021, however, organizers formally ended their campaign just over a year later. More recently, workers from Snøhetta in New York also filed with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election, but the attempt proved unsuccessful. In late August, however, the organizing group Architectural Workers United filed an unfair labor practice charge against the firm.
ARCHITECT reached out to the partners of Sage and Coombe this morning for a comment, but did not receive a response. The firm did, however, post a statement on Instagram this afternoon.
This is a breaking news post and has been updated.