Drinking on the Job

Coffee break @ Souciant. Berlin, 13 June.

When we started the midnight milking in the kibbutz dairy barns, there were two tasks.  One worker drove cows into the washing pen to begin the process. The other worker made coffee.  Hot coffee was the right of dairy workers beginning their shift. 

Our world of coffee divided in two: bots and nes.  Bots – ‘mud coffee’ of boiling water poured over grounds – was ‘real’ coffee, the coffee of working people.  Nes – instant coffee, the Hebrew for ‘miracle’ conveniently being the first syllable of Nescafe – was the weak stuff, left for the bourgeois moments of life.  We drank bots, of course, made on an open gas flame. 

We participated fully in this fetishisation of workers’ coffee served in short glass cups held carefully to avoid burnt fingers. On cold, rainy nights we clasped the warm coffee gratefully, our hands bitterly cold from washing down the undersides of cows.  What mattered was less the quality of bots coffee, more the degree to which it stimulated and warmed.

 This was the important distinction: coffee took its meaning as comfort, not as an aesthetic experience in its own right.  Since cows can and do shit copiously while being milked, we smelled shit more than coffee.  Sometimes a piece of shit would sail into the coffee, which meant washing the glass carefully and pouring fresh if there was any left in the kum-kum.   

Coffee provided a mode of sharing as milking-room work progressed.  Working down a milking-line meant a chance to stand and share a sip together as the next line of cows entered the room.  Coffee provided camaraderie, just as it might for hotel domestics taking a short break from room-cleaning. Too often we romanticise labour solidarity and fail to realise that it most often remains restricted to the moment and that there are few if any moments that translate into broad working-class networks. Coffee breaks have their limits.

One day in August a co-worker and I were tossing hay bales to each other up a two-story stack.  It was hot and within an hour we were exhausted, barely able to toss the needed height upwards.  That was when I told myself “You’re a smart enough fellow.  Next job make sure there is air-conditioning.” Since then good air-conditioning has been a determining prerequisite in my employment.  That self-demand for air-conditioning was a personal transition point from blue-collar to white-collar work.

Later I was working in a social research institute in Jerusalem, where years of work were to teach me that one of social research’s most critical functions was to support the middle class through studying and writing reports that were quite useless to poor people.  It is vastly cheaper to fund social research than social programs.  We produced papers and sons of papers.  We studied poverty and ageing but we never saw poor or old people in our offices.

What we did have was a tea lady, Miriam, who served us either te im nana (mint tea) or kafe bots.  The mint came fresh from the garden, built under another dispensation when this building had served as Hebrew University’s archaeology department.  The institute provided tea or coffee gratis.  For a small sum, one could add Miriam’s delicious lachmaniot (small oblong roll) sandwiches with either bulgarit white cheese or sliced green pepper.  From her minute kitchen space, Miriam emanated good cheer.

In the 1980s the office of tea lady was gradually fading from the offices and factories where it had been common.  In Israel, tea ladies were mostly middle-aged or older Mizrahi women like Miriam.  They had few negotiable labour market skills and this job could provide a small income by adapting a traditionally feminine role to the workplace. 

The institute director, a medical doctor and immigrant from a Manchester textile factory-owning family, brought conservative English class attitudes with him.  The institution of tea lady comported well with such class notions. However, the ruling hand was an American Jewish voluntary organisation and they paid strict attention to budget. 

So in one of the periodic budget crises, the institute let go Miriam the tea lady.  General sentiment among institute staff was that Miriam was more valuable to the work environment than the director.  When I met her in the street later, she expressed gratitude that the director had arranged for her a new job as the cook at an old age home.  His turn came soon enough. After another budget over-run, the director was looking for a new job too. 

The replacement, an American Jewish economist whose family came from the island of Rhodes and who might have realised the value of coffee and tea culture, kept to budget. He was also one of the most despicable men I have ever met and formative in my next employment decision never to have another boss. That is how I became an academic, another story.

Americanisation meant that the new director eliminated coffee and tea provision, even in self-service. When the institute’s associate director, who had not heard the news and asked that coffee be brought to a meeting with government officials, he responded sharply “That is idiotic!  That is being penny-wise and pound-foolish!”

The associate director, Shimon Bergman (z”l), was a tall, silver-haired, wise, and lovely old Polish-born gentleman who had been the solitary Jewish social worker in Shanghai during the 1930s-1940s, responsible for building the first and only old age home in China.  Within hours of his outburst, management restored coffee and tea provision and kept a hot water urn boiling. 

The elimination of the tea lady and attempted end of coffee and tea provision by an employer pointed towards a development in Israeli society that was to become far more pronounced in following years: the Americanisation of workplaces. It was not only in Israel.  A similar near-elimination of tea breaks, tea ladies, and tea trolleys occurred in the UK and elsewhere. 

In economies that promote streamlined labour efficiencies and devalue the benefits of workplace socialisation, a tea lady is part of an old order. An order that tolerated inefficiencies and a more sedentary pace had begun its public decomposition.

A massive global shift towards cafes as integral pay-to-use spaces in a distributed online workplace obscures the sharing of coffee and tea in workplaces as a form of labour solidarity. 

In discussing cafés and thirdspaces as sites of social production, we often forget that physical workplace socialisation shapes production with greater intensity. 

Resisting the alienation of shared tea and coffee from our workplaces is a means to resist the alienation of labour. 

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.