It might seem like small beer compared to the battle for the eight-hour day or the weekend, but the right to have a humble pot plant on your desk has nevertheless fuelled a bitter showdown at the University of Sydney.
It started in May, when staff due to move into the new administration building, known as F23, were advised they could not bring any personal items with them, such as artworks or pot plants.
They were also told that they would be relocated to an open plan office with desks a mere 1.5 metres wide. This would mean no privacy and no way to block out distractions. The prohibition of personal items would also extend to union material such as posters.
Outrage at the directive was felt far and wide across campus. In the context of ongoing restructures, centralisation and increasing workloads, management pushing workers into cramped workspaces with little capacity for personal expression and where we feel constantly watched has hit a nerve.
A lively campaign committee meeting drew more than two dozen activists determined to fight back.
Following the meeting, an open letter was drawn up to demand the directive be rescinded. It drew two hundred signatures within a couple of weeks. A union town hall meeting drew a hundred people and brought a range of other stories about toxic workplaces to light.
Campaigning about pot plants might seem trivial, but it is important. Like so many demands raised by the workers’ movement, it is about the right to be treated like humans, not objects, in the workplace. The slogan adopted by the campaign is “Workspaces are for people, not robots”.
It also about job security. With every act of dehumanisation and denial of personal freedoms in the workplace, staff feel more and more dispensable and under threat. Personalising your workstation, displaying your photos, artworks and succulents is part of feeling secure and permanent in your job.
It’s just as well a fuss was made about the pot plants. Management relented on the issue, which strengthened workers’ resolve to fight about the other issue: surveillance.
A few weeks into the campaign, staff learnt that CCTV cameras would be installed in all the kitchens and lounge areas. Because the kitchen and office are separated by glass walls, this would mean they could also monitor work stations.
When challenged about this, management justified the cameras on the grounds that the areas were public space.
But this does not stack up. At induction staff were advised that every floor of the new building requires swipe card access, and that invited guests must meet a staff member at reception on ground floor and be accompanied around the building. In other words, no kitchen or lounge area in F23 can be defined as public.
A petition circulated among affected staff demanding the removal of CCTV gathered 85 signatures within 24 hours. Management have since conceded that they would ensure cameras cannot view staff work stations, but the union is demanding that they be removed entirely.
The new building will be home to the vice-chancellor’s new office. Hence why the union is determined to establish a presence there.
On the first day that staff moved in, a union stall was held outside the building which included a pot plant giveaway with plants labelled “perennially union” and “hardy union specimen”.
While the directive about personal items and pot plants has been rescinded, CCTV surveillance remains unresolved.
The many people who have participated in this campaign and the new layers of activists it has generated show that no issue is too trivial for the workers’ movement to take up. Every injustice is an organising opportunity.