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.


1 comment:

3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058209749445923078164062862089986280348253421170679 said...

In a summer, during my academic misbehavior years, I worked an 8-4 job wherein we were afforded breaks at 10 & 2, in addition to lunch. It was a wonderful thing and broke up the day beautifully. There was something to look forward to 4 times a day, rather than 2 (lunch & getting the heck out of there). Such a small difference, yet so important.

How would we spend these moments of break? We played 10 card Gin. Like cooking rice, anyone can do it (play Gin) but few do it well.

The idea of a Coffee Break and the having it in a Break Room should go down alongside some of the greatest of human achievement, such as the invention of Potato Buds.