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Following the meeting, an open letter was drawn up to demand the directive be rescinded.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.
There has been a vigorous argument over the direction of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) industrial campaign at Sydney University this year. Most recently, those who have been reluctant to argue and organise seriously for frequent enough and long enough strikes are now leading the charge for a “smarter” strategy of administration bans.
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Minoo Jalali was among those who resisted Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power in Iran. In the early months of 1979, she joined a mass women’s protest against the compulsory wearing of the hijab in public. “That revolution was inevitable”, Jalali recounted 40 years later in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “Nobody could have really stopped the force of it. We hoped that we could steer it [but] we were wrong. And the clergy hijacked it ... and deceived many people.”
Protests and riots have spread across Iran after a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, was murdered by the morality police. Amini was visiting the capital, Tehran, on 13 September when she was arrested for allegedly breaking mandatory veiling laws. Police beat her into a coma and she died three days later. Amini was buried in her hometown of Saqqez.
The international working-class movement has long been divided between two strategies to win socialism: the reformist and the revolutionary.
Revolutionary Marxists argue that socialism is possible only if the working class leads a revolution. So why organise among students?