Union! Union! Union?

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    Christopher Patzke

    Morning all. I woke up with a bit of a Norma Rae complex this morning and wanted to throw this out to see how people feel about unionizing.

    Young professionals in the field are compensated at deplorable rates, work extremely long hours, have little benefits and do grunt work that does not take full advantage of the skills they have learned in school. They are treated as expendable resources in SOME (but not all) studios. The ASLA does not seem to address these issues in an active way that promotes livable wages and contemporary professional norms.

    A colleague and I propose a new Union of Landscape Architecture Professionals (ULAP if you will) that would be open to recent graduates through the Associate level within the profession. Membership would only be dependant on graduating from an accredited school of Landscape Architecture. The ASLA already supports communication amongst professionals so the specific goal of the union would be to advocate for and protect fair employment practices.

    It’s unionizing…it’s madness…it’s unionizing madness. but I wonder how people feel about the idea.

    Bria Sativa Aguayo

    I know this is a forum for LA’s but what about Landscape Designers? We are educated too and end up in the same pickle. Could you find room in your heart to consider us in your zeal?
    -Bria Sativa Aguayo

    Christopher Patzke

    Well I am really just asking the question Andrew. If someone doesn’t ask, our profession will not evolve. At one point in history our training and expertise were valued more than they are now. Even my boss has stated that plumbers make more than I do (no offense to plumbers but 7 years of training should be compensated at a high rate). If collective discussion brings about a shift in the profession all members will benefit.

    I recently attended a State of the University lecture by John Casteen, the President of The University of Virginia. He mentioned Access Grants for those attending the University during the lecture as a way of funding the education of those who can not pay for college. In a follow up question I asked him about the next economic crisis that will face our nation – the inability for my generation to repay our student loans. When he found out that I had graduated from the Architecture School he noted that salaries and benefits for landscape architects and architect are “scary”. He noted that his friends in the field finally made a proper living for themselves when they were in their 50’s. Is this really the legacy of our profession? I don’t think it has to be…and I don’t think intimidating those who are opening a dialogue is the answer either. We need frank discussion.

    Bria I can understand your point . I think it is important for Landscape Designers to have a voice. I do, however, also think there are significant differences between Landscape Architects and Landscape Designers including scale of design, training and professional concerns.

    Trace One

    I think the ASLA is somehow very non-user friendly, and am currently a member of an Engineering Union, which has garnered LA’s in my office significantly higher pay..

    I am all in favor of unions..My grandma was an ILGWU seamstress..
    Good luck I will sign the petition, or whatever you want..


    As much as I agree and identify with your concerns Chris, I’m skeptical of the idea of unionizing the profession. I believe there are already too many restrictions to gaining access to the profession. The cumulative agendas of CLARB and the collective of professional degree programs makes it restrictive to a great number of talented individuals to simply practice a trade they are good at and know well by introducing unrealistic barriers and prerequisites to the practice.

    One professor I had made a point to indicate how well he had done financially over the years teaching landscape architecture. If university officials are so concerned with the future state of the profession, why don’t they work on capping tuition? From what I can see it pays much better and lends better job security teaching design or working within a professional organization rather than practicing. I think the same probably rings true for many professions, but as has been pointed out, the issue is mainly the salary gap and cost in gaining access to the practice.

    I’m now a glorified landscape designer considering I cannot afford to return to school to take the few general courses I have remaining to complete my degree. I’ll have to wait and hope to find a job paying well enough to afford a few more courses before I can begin the road to licensure, if I should choose to go that route. Other professions have many more options for financing education or simply less requirements.

    The more I argue on the side of professional advocacy and greater political representation, the more I question the validity.

    But what irks me more than anything is the salary expectation in accordance with workload. As Andrew alluded to in another post, there are many unlicensed professionals out there with little or no desire to earn licensure. The more I consider the prospect of one day earning the title of RLA, the less it makes sense. I read somehwere a while ago that the best architects are those born to money. I’m beginning to believe this and think the same could one day be true for landscape architects, and perhaps all design professions.

    The best and worse thing that could come of this recession/depression for many of us is the prospect of many leaving the profession outright for other careers.

    It seems less than a year ago I was reading BLS surveys indicating the growing demand for LA’s and now the labor market is so overstaurated with unemployed and underemployed professionals, with more coming, thanks in part to those statistics that the prospect of ever repaying my student loans by means of this profession is bleak. I could see how in five or tn years time, the only mid-level people employed in this profession are those that could somehow weather this storm with inheritance or were too dense to leave it, finding themselves up to their eyeballs in debt.

    I’m not sure if a union is the best option. In some ways, as we already have seen in this thread, it can polarize and segregate the profession of land design further, making more difficult for people like myself to enter by adding yet another hoop to jump through. At the same time, I would agree that the profession could use better advocacy both politically and professionally to help protect the integrity of the practice. After all, part of what makes this profession disproportionately expensive to pursue is the legal liability associated with licensure, is it not? So, in consideration of those terms, landscape designers should not recieve the same professional benefits as licensed LA’s.

    I’m not even remotely close to having a certain opinion on the topic of compensation, unions, and the state of the profession. All I can do is conject at this point and share my own limited experience.

    Christopher Patzke

    Great insights Nick…really makes me think about the topic in a broader way. Thanks.


    I can also agree with Trace’s comments, but feel there should remain some semblance of open competition to keep the profession accessible to a wider range of individuals. Introducing more bureaucracy seems somewhat counterintuitive, though I agree that professiona organizations could do a better job of advocating for the profession.

    I also wonder how many talented and knowledgable landscape designers are relegated to the ranks of backyard design because higher education and some of the other externally mandated prerequisites for entry into professional practice and licensure make the prospect unrealistic. Somehow this just seems undemocratic, unfair, and ultimately unwise.


    I agree for the most part, particuarly with the part on internships and cheap labor.

    I interned through school at the ‘best’ firms I could get into and I was not required to do so, I just needed the money and the experience was a bonus. I also worked at a smaller engineering/LA/Planning office through most of my 5th and final year at CSU and feel lucky to have gained the experience.

    I’m sure there are so many in my particular position (just out of school, worked hard, some experience, strong skill set) that are really questioning whether they should stick it out or not. I know of at least a handful that are looking very seriously into other fields altogether.

    I think part of the issue for people in my professional generation is that we havent experienced the ‘boom’ times, just the bust, and what worse timing, not to whine. It really makes you question what you’re sacrificing for and your future outlook as an LA/Designer.

    I had to think about your comment regarding Bria (interesting middle name indeed, lol at andrew). That would be assuming LA’s have greater earning potential as independent contractors/designers not encumbered by the strictures of LA policy? I tend to agree.

    Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect to all this is the long range detriment this recession has on the unlicensed designers career. I’m sure many of us junior level people are finding ourselves in a bit of a conundrum. I know construction and landscape design well enough to go out on my own and try to pick up design-build work, but as we all may know, this requires a siginificant commitment and does not count toward licensure.


    that firms are able to dictate an unlivable wage and / or inhumanely long hours with inadequate compensation suggests that there must be too much supply of young designers coming up with comparable skills to those already working. If conditions are bad enough over the long run, young designers will leave the profession and do something for better pay, while university LA programs will have difficulty attracting new students.

    Bingo. I can attest to that. I know quite a few pretty talented people who graduated around the same time as me doing other things now already. I can see a lot of people near my level, even if they are currently employed, leaving the profession in the coming years. I dont think it has ever been so true as now to say that you really gotta ‘love’ this profession…or be stuck with it.

    I just cant picture myself doing anything else really.

    Ryan A. Waggoner

    I didn’t think that I had much to say when this discussion started, but going through the responses I’m filled with different thoughts. As a fairly new professional in the industry, I definitely can relate to “Young professionals in the field are compensated at deplorable rates, work extremely long hours, have little benefits and do grunt work that does not take full advantage of the skills they have learned in school.” My first position out of school definitely had some of these characteristics. But to me, this is what I expected, and was not at all surprised or disappointed.
    I believe in Andrew’s brand of straight forward thinking that the hardest and most talented get where they are through diligence and creativity. We are who determine what we should or should not be compensated financially by our own skills, abilities and produced work. Unionizing at first to me sounded like a good idea, but what would it really accomplish?
    Coming from Michigan, I’ve seen the good and bad from unions over the last 50 years. I think that is what has pretty much crushed the north american auto industry. Sure, the pay and benefits increase, but the quality of product is usually what suffers. To me, that is the most important part, and not worth the sacrifice…

    Chad Crutcher

    Nick said…”I just cant picture myself doing anything else really.”

    Well, that gets the real BINGO!

    And that desire will be the basis for the economic cull you are talking about. Who’s in and who’s out in any profession as competitive as ours will always be led by the dreamers that never say die. Yes, it is true that a decent lifestyle may have to wait until your 50’s…but, imagine how rich your developmental history will be and how empathetic to the little guy you will be as a designer, and a human being. When I opened my firm in 1984 (since closed in ’97) my credo was never to forget what it was like to be the low man on the totem pole.

    Its tough. But, it IS getting better. Look at the increased frequency of job postings. Maybe not in your area, but all marekts are local/regional.

    Re: unions. I’ve been the schlepper/draftsperson/gopher, I’ve been the BOSS. And everything in between. True craft requires an apprenticeship. What you learned in school has to be unlearned and your mind retrained. School should give you the skills…graphics, critical thinking, writing, speaking and how to find out what you don’t know but need to. You can’t get truly professional training except in the trenches. In a competitive endeavor such as ours, an entrepreneurial spirit is the key to success, even in an office context. I think a union would stifle that energy with complacency. Fear is a great motivator, too. No, I do not advocate office slavery. I’ve worked in sweatshops and know it can generate diminishing returns because of the attitudes it stirs up, as described in this thread. I am very strict about setting limits on my hours…and my staff’s. But, healthy and collaborative competition can be a good thing for a design firm. It pushes people. I think it prudent to be looking over your shoulder to check on who or what is closing in from behind. A good work environment will/should drive people to achieve greater heights. Those that do will reap the rewards. Motivation is our union.

    That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it!

    Do well doing good.

    Christopher Patzke

    Chad…while I generally agree with the spirit of what your saying I do think a professional organization that brings salaries and benefits in line with what is generally expected in other professions would be extremely beneficial to our profession as a whole. Clearly the ASLA is a failed organization that does little if anything to foster the growth of young professionals. Quite frankly I beleive these issues are what makes our profession cull talented, driven individuals. The current economic crisis is exacerbating the disfunction.

    When I graduated graduate school I could not afford to even go into the profession. I started life working for a large corporate general contractor. I certainly had the motivation and the talent.

    There are some things that I just simply do not believe are appropriate in our profession: social darwinism and unlearning what is taught in school. As someone who grew up very underpriviledged and worked hard to attain a graduate degree from a prestigious university I just can not accept those concepts. This should not be a profession for the upper middle class and the wealthy. Our schools ARE doing a good job training people.

    Chad Crutcher


    It isn’t and I aint. Monied, that is. I make a decent living, but, I’ve been at this for over 30 years. My wife makes twice what I do!

    Take my comment about school with a grain of salt. Yes, most universities are doing an OK job for undergrads. Those fortunate enough to attend post-grad programs should be expected to deliver more. And, of course one does not eject an education in the literal sense. But how things are taught in school and how they really happen are far different. In the marketplace, the designer is often a cork on the ocean of influences from jurisdictional agencies, the client, the budget, other discipline’s requirements, and constrant on top of constraint on top of all the complex interpersonal/professional relationships, all underscored by the very real threat of liability. There is much for a young person to learn, truly comprehend and then orchestrate to successful outcomes before a business owner will risk giving them authority. The most painful lesson I learned along the way…patience. I sounded like you.

    As for the ASLA, in which I am locally active, it is what you make it. I do not believe the organization exists for my benefit. In fact, beyond local involvement, national is simply the magazine and annual conference to me. In my opinion, ASLA exists to benefit the profession at large through contribution by its members. It is a give back deal. Beyond legal information and ethical principles, I don’t want them having authority over my business operation in the form of conditional mandates (do this, or we do that and/or kick you out).

    And now I’m going to review the thread on the passing of Mr. Halprin.


    “I think a union would stifle that energy with complacency. ”
    I was represented by a union when I was with the NJDOT, and I’m inclined to concur with that statement. Sure, it led to better pay and benefits, but it wasn’t helping with what I really wanted at the time, which was interesting, challenging work! I would like to see the creation of conditions which would allow for better job security and better pay, but at this point I think its better to concentrate efforts in improving the US economy. How do we do that? Well, I didn’t study economics, so I’m at a loss. I think its also important to make more people aware of what landscape architects do and the role they can play in creating sustainable environments. There are STILL a lot of people out there who think we are the same as landscape contractors and really could care less abot education and licensure.


    Coming from Michigan, I’ve seen the good and bad from unions over the last 50 years. I think that is what has pretty much crushed the north american auto industry. Sure, the pay and benefits increase, but the quality of product is usually what suffers. To me, that is the most important part, and not worth the sacrifice…

    That got me thinking. The largest market shares have been lost to Japanese and german carmakers. Do Japanese and German auto workers have unions? I Googled, and apparently they do. I found an article about how the German automakers are also shipping jobs to countries where the labor costs are lower, like Eastern Europe and Turkey. Japanese autoworkers are among the most well-compensated in the world. Is it the American work-ethic that has declined? Is someone who works on an assembly line looked down on in a way they are not in Germany and Japan?

    Another point I want to make is that I think the pain a lot of us are feeling is a larger societal trend of squeezing the middle class with real wages being stagnant and costs of living increasing. That IS something you can write to your congressman about. Why has the financial sector grown to be such a huge % of all income in the US? They have had laws and tax codes changed to benefit them, to increase their profits, all under the guise that it will trickele down and benefit everyone. CEO salaries are out of control. Bill Maher introduced an idea on his show recently: “Their wealth makes your poverty”. With so much wealth concentrated in one industry, there isn’t as much left for others. What we have is essentially socialism for the uber-wealthy. They’ve learned how to work the system for their benefit, so should you.

    I don’t have enough faith in the market to agree with the statement that if there was more of a demand for LA services, it would be better paid. I think the prevailing culture in the US is still quite coarse and does not really value good design. OK, that could be used as supporting the fact of weak demand for LA services, but the point I’m trying to make is that there is more we could do to increase the design IQ of the client base. I’ve sat through so many dull meetings where the topic on conversation is about things like having a hedge spell out the town’s name and what the ideal tree would be. The public-at-large is not even conversant in the idea of a larger landscape, of how it all works together, of how it influences behaviour, of how it can set the identity of a place.

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