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The Invisible Labor of Coffee
So much of how coffee gets to you is completely obscured—and affects how we assign value to the final product.
I once watched a presentation where someone said between 50 to 100 hands touch a given coffee bean before it ever gets to a consumer.
Recently, when I tried to find this statistic online, I could only locate vague platitudes about “the amount of people who touch one coffee bean.” But we can at least establish a few facts: Most of the coffee you drink (from small, independent shops to mega brands like Starbucks and McDonald’s) is hand-grown, hand-harvested, hand-picked, hand-sorted, hand-processed, hand-bagged, hand-shipped, hand-roasted, hand-bagged again, and hand-made. Whatever the exact number of hands, it’s clear that coffee is an enormously labor-intensive good to produce.
It’s striking to think about just how many people are needed to get you your morning cup, and it’s more astonishing that that cup could still only cost a couple bucks, if not less. Once you pan out and reflect on how true that pricing is of so many other food and drink products you consume—fruit, vegetables, tea, rice, chocolate, and on—a troubling picture begins to emerge.
On Tuesday’s podcast episode, I talked to Lori Flores, a history professor at Stony Brook University, who studies the labor and migration history of Latinx people in the United States. One of the topics we discussed was the Bracero Program, an initiative which encouraged Mexican laborers to migrate to the U.S.; it spanned from 1942–1964, making it one of the longest-running guest worker programs in world history.
Boss Barista isn’t made with quite as many hands as it takes to get you your morning coffee, but the hands that do work on this newsletter work really hard! If you’d like to see this newsletter keep going, please consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Many of those people came to work on vegetable farms, but were often forced to accept low wages and prevented from joining unions. Throughout this process, their labor became more and more obscured from the consumer, Lori said:
I’m really fascinated by what is, intentionally or maybe unintentionally, invisible to us, and making visible those people and those voices and those histories that contain movement, whether they’re from another country in Latin America, in the Caribbean, or whether it’s internal here in the U.S.—people move all the time for work and for their lives…
I think the ways in which, in the U.S., food and drink has become so hurried in some ways that if you wanna be slow about your eating and drinking, that’s actually running counter to a lot of the culture that we have around food and drink—the faster that we expect these to be in our hands and in front of us, on our plates, the less we are thinking about and the less thoughtful we are being about how much time and how much backbreaking labor it took to get that product to you.
Thus, we’re not thinking about the types of wages. If anything, we are devaluing workers all the time because the price point has been kept so low for us for decades.
Today, there are millions of people erased from our supply streams. Some of that is the nature of capitalism, industrialization, and globalization—very few of the items we consume are wholly made by one person from start to finish, and corporate supply chains are typically opaque.
But when workers get erased, our perceptions of the value and worth of what they produce often shrink with them. The fewer people we see involved in delivering us the items we need, the less we recognize the labor it took to get them to us. And as a result of that invisible work, we come to expect items that are completely devoid of any markers of human labor to come to us as cheaply as possible.
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(A quick note: “Invisible work” is a term coined by sociologist Arlene Kaplan Daniels, and it was meant to codify the work that women do that often goes unnoticed and unrewarded. Although the idea of invisible work on farms features some of the same themes as Daniels’ initial definition of the term, I think it might be helpful to separate the two: Invisible labor, as defined by Daniels, primarily concerns the unequal division of domestic duties, while the shrouded labor we’re talking about here underlies the production of basic goods and services.)
This dynamic is why we justify paying more for a thing that is marketed as “handmade”—think Etsy store items, handcrafted furniture, or various supposedly “artisan” goods. But many of the foods we eat and the items we drink are also handmade, yet we’ve become very alienated from the people who craft these essentials.
This alienation isn’t just about the labor we don’t see—it goes further, and makes consumers believe we’re in direct conflict with an invisible labor force. If you’ve ever heard someone say something like, “Burger flippers shouldn’t be paid $15 an hour,” or complain about workers demanding higher wages because it’ll drive up the cost of their goods (even while corporate leaders rake in millions in profits per year), then this tactic is working. The message is clear: We as consumers won’t be able to get what we need, and our own work may be devalued, if the people who make the things we enjoy are paid a fair wage.
That we’ve absorbed this messaging isn’t our fault—it’s what companies want. By keeping labor invisible, those in power can suppress wages, escape scrutiny, and assert a lot of control. That’s one of the reasons the labor behind coffee is still so obscured. The coffee supply stream is a relic of colonialism—a sentence I’m sure I’ve written a thousand times before—and to keep it cheap for consumers (and to keep profits high), the labor of those who grow and harvest it needs to be erased.
Union Formation (and Fallout)
Visibility and transparency show up a lot in how we view labor and workers’ rights. This is why the current union upswing is really exciting: Unions work to distribute power more widely, and make visible and concrete what is often left invisible and intentionally nebulous for the sake of those in power. (Lori even uses this analogy of transparent vs. concrete in our bonus episode coming out next week—sign up to be a paid subscriber to listen.)
That’s why, in the ongoing, nationwide unionization drive happening at Starbucks, there’s so much company rhetoric around “wanting to negotiate directly with partners” as opposed to dealing with a union. Starbucks wants to be able to talk directly to workers without a thousand other eyes—i.e., the union—watching over it, and it wants the power imbalance between management and workers to remain in place. In an era when so many corporate communications are shrouded, a union is like having receipts.
This recent union drive isn’t happening in a vacuum: Within the coffee industry, we’re seeing the consolidation of a number of large coffee companies. Intelligentsia, Peet’s, and Stumptown—three of the largest coffee companies in the U.S.—are all owned by the same company, JAB Holding Company (a little tidbit that we glossed over during the Intelligentsia Union episode released a few weeks ago).
And we’re also seeing unions quietly getting killed. Late last month, Gimme! Coffee in Ithaca, New York, transitioned to be a worker-owned cooperative after its union was decertified. The mini-chain was noted for being the first coffee union to form in 2018, but this article implies there’s some conflict with the remnants of the former union. The author writes: “There has also been major turnover at the coffee shop, with all the previous union stewards having left and a new slate of staff members working at Gimme without ever having been a part of the union.”
To be clear: I don’t think Gimme! did anything nefarious to dismantle their union (I’m eager for more coverage on their worker-owned model and hope to tackle this topic myself in the coming weeks — if you’ve ever worked for a worker-owned business, please comment below) but the above quote made me think: “How often do unions die simply because of staff turnover?”
We know that most union organizers have to wait more than a year for a contract, so it’s not a stretch to consider the ways that turnover can be weaponized. I texted my union contacts about this topic, and they mentioned that banking on turnover is a common tactic for union-busting: waiting things out until the staff changes enough to challenge the initial union vote.
In the meantime, the folks at Pavement Coffee in Boston just ratified their first contract, so I have to hope that good things are still possible. (In an unsurprising turn of events, I couldn’t find any news coverage of this, but I did dig up tons of articles about their initial intent to unionize last year.)
And now, I’ll leave you with another snippet from Lori’s bonus audio. I hope you’ll consider becoming a paid subscriber so you can listen to her full extra interview:
If anything, I do wanna hit home again that need to think of your life as intertwined with so many others. And that acknowledging the privileges we get in being able to sit down with a cup of coffee, with somebody that we want to be with, or walking in and getting a cup of coffee to start our routine or our commute or our days—that is made possible because of other people who are getting up hours before you, people who are working for hours later than you, for people who have not seen their families in years, who are scared to travel home because they’re afraid of not being able to get back in and keep working.
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