Three Brothers Coffee may become first union shop in town

On Friday, baristas and shift leads asked the coffee shop to voluntarily recognize their union.

By: - March 4, 2022 4:58 pm
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

A group of baristas and organizers gathered around a small bonfire in the chilly air Thursday night, ensuring everyone was on board with the union recognition letter the group delivered Friday to Three Brothers Coffee. If recognized, the shop on West End Avenue would become the first unionized coffee shop in Nashville and potentially the first in the state.

The group of baristas and shift leads say they want to feel valued and participate in collective bargaining over profit sharing and other workplace improvements. 

“Many of us have been loyal to the early life of this shop and believe [it] has much more to offer… We request that you acknowledge that role by voluntarily recognizing our union,” workers wrote in the delivery letter.

Friday, the group gathered in the small shop and wore red in a show of solidarity. They handed the letter to management while hanging a hand-written sign over the cash register that read “Fresh union brewing be right back.” When shift manager Colin Colohan accepted the letter the baristas crowded into a group hug with him.

“Nothing is stopping this train,” Colohan said while the workers cheered.

Although it’s not clear yet whether owner Toby Wilt Jr., who also owns other Nashville businesses like Cumberland Transit, will voluntarily recognize Coffee Workers of the South, they were hopeful. Many embraced and at least two shed happy tears at the positive feedback from Colohan. While many coffee shops around the country face staunch pushback against unionization, Three Brothers may become the first and most union-friendly shop in the state. As the baristas celebrated, customers in the shop read the sign hanging on the register without complaint.

There’s a lack of respect for service industry workers and we’re treated as transient, like props, instead of valuable members of the business. That’s the way the system is set up, and we are trying to suggest maybe that’s not the only way.

– Paige Lemon, barista at Three Brothers Coffee and union organizer

One worker who chose to withhold their last name said the reception is important because both workers and employers should uphold their half of a working relationship.

“I think it’s really important when you make a commitment to anything [that] both sides stick to it, and uplift each other in that,” Max said Thursday evening.

Paige Lemon, a barista and organizer with the group, said service workers in general are treated poorly by the food industry and that employees deserve dignity as well as the ability to bargain.

“There’s a lack of respect for service industry workers and we’re treated as transient, like props, instead of valuable members of the business,” Lemon said. “That’s the way the system is set up, and we are trying to suggest maybe that’s not the only way. I just hope it feels like a first step that this process has really begun. And I just wanna finish my shift.” 

Another worker said wages are stagnant and hopes to see an increase in pay consistent with what other service industry workers in town receive.

“I know what other baristas are being paid and our starting wage isn’t near that,” a shift lead at the shop said Thursday night.

If management chooses not to voluntarily recognize Coffee Workers of the South, the group says they have a supermajority and will win in an election. They also plan to show solidarity with other coffee shop workers by hosting events together in the future, although it’s not clear yet how many shops will join their effort. On Friday, a few other organizers and friends gathered at a table to support the baristas and watch the delivery.

Paige McCay, organizer with Restaurant Opportunities Center United Music City,  helped the workers draft the letter and brainstorm the best way to deliver it. She says she’s proud of their bravery and commitment to improving work conditions for every barista in the state, and looks forward to assisting with ongoing unionization drives.

The letter comes on the heels of the ongoing fight to unionize a Starbucks in Memphis. That effort led to employees being fired after announcing plans to push for safer working conditions and better pay, according to Action News 5. Starbucks employees in other states face firing and retaliation for similar reasons, according to the New York Times.

Although it’s not set in stone yet, Three Brothers employees are confident in their letter and the likelihood they’ll be able to unionize without pushback from Wilt.

“It’s the best reception we could’ve hoped for,” one organizer said after handing over the letter.

Wilt Jr. is the son of Toby Wilt Sr., who is in the Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame. Wilt Jr. was not immediately available for comment on Friday. As employees got back to work, Lemon laid a small bunch of roses on the counter alongside a second sign. 

“The union makes our coffee strong,” it read.


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Lonnie Lee Hood
Lonnie Lee Hood

Lonnie Lee Hood is a queer Nashville-based writer covering justice, LGBTQ issues and more. They are an amateur roller-skater and live with their hedgehog, Noodle, and three-legged cat, Tom. They are writing a debut novel and have published poetry and sci-fi/fantasy short stories.