Tuesday, September 4, 2018

A coffee-drinking workers’ paradise


Happy Labor Day!  The joy of Labor Day is its focus on pursuing leisure, enjoying the outdoors, and hanging out with friends and family---but Labor Day, like most things of value, was hard-won. It started as a municipal ordinance in the mid-1880’s, and slowly took hold as individual states passed laws celebrating Labor Day. Finally, in June 1884, the United States Congress passed a federal law making the first Monday of September an official holiday celebrating working people.

So what does Labor Day have to do with coffee? A lot it turns out.  Starting in the early 20th century, drinking coffee in the middle of the day became a major cause celebre for working people and the unions that represented them.

1900 was a very auspicious year for American workers. That was the year that the Hills Brothers Company introduced vacuum-packed coffee, making it possible for people to brew coffee at home, and even at work. However, even before coffee was mass-produced, it was consumed regularly, in coffee shops and homes, and used to stoke productivity and improve overall morale---so the coffee break has actually been around for as long as coffee has been around---but for a long time it wasn’t a legal right.   

The movement towards formalizing coffee breaks accelerated in 1952, when the Pan-American Coffee Bureau, a trade group, launched a campaign designed to popularize the coffee break, and create a new norm. The campaign pivoted on to-the-point advertising: “Give yourself a Coffee-Break---and Get What Coffee Gives You.” Apparently the campaign worked, or at least tapped into the national zeitgeist in which all types of workers---blue collar, white collar, domestic, and agricultural---looked forward to those moments in the day when they could have a nice, hot, healthy cup of coffee. Employers were into it too, because they noticed that productivity actually increased when they provided coffee onsite for their workers.
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A big moment for coffee-break champions occurred in the mid-1960’s, when the large Detroit-based automakers negotiated 12-minute breaks with trade unions, whose workers were determined to not only have a coffee break, but to have time to sit down for a few minutes, drink their coffee, have a bite to eat---and maybe chat with a co-worker.

So it’s been a lovely Labor Day here in New Jersey. There’s been a lot of coffee, a lot of food, and no shortage of laughter.  The day was hot, the pool was cool, and the kids were happy---what more could you want.  Well, one thing I know I will want tomorrow morning when it’s time to go back to work is a huge cup of coffee---at home when I wake up, at work when I arrive, and throughout the day.  Coffee-drinkers of the world unite! Happy Labor Day.