A group of baristas and organizers gathered around a small bonfire in the chilly air on Thursday evening, making sure everyone agreed with the union recognition letter the group handed out Friday at Three Brothers Coffee. If recognized, the West End Avenue store would become Nashville’s first unionized cafe and potentially the first in the state.
The group of baristas and shift managers 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 beginnings of this store and believe [it] has much more to offer… We ask that you recognize this role by voluntarily recognizing our union,” the workers wrote in the delivery letter.
On Friday, the group gathered in the small shop and wore red as a sign of solidarity. They delivered the letter to management while hanging a handwritten sign above the cash register that read, “Fresh union brewing is back.” When shift manager Colin Colohan accepted the letter, the baristas huddled in a group hug with him.
“Nothing stops this train,” Colohan said to cheers from the workers.
While it’s not yet clear whether owner Toby Wilt Jr., who also owns other Nashville businesses like Cumberland Transit, will voluntarily recognize the Coffee Workers of the South, they were hopeful. Many hugged and at least two cried tears of joy at Colohan’s positive comments. While many cafes across the country face fierce resistance to unionization, Three Brothers could become the first and most union-friendly in the state. As the baristas partied, the store’s patrons uncomplainingly read the sign hanging from the register.
There is a lack of respect for workers in the service industry and we are treated like passengers, like props, instead of valued members of the company. This is how the system is organized, and we are trying to suggest that this may not be the only way.
– Paige Lemon, barista at Three Brothers Coffee and union organizer
A worker who chose not to release his last name said the reception is important because workers and employers must respect their half of an employment relationship.
“I think it’s really important when you engage in anything. [that] both sides are sticking to it and uplifting each other,” Max said Thursday night.
Paige Lemon, barista and organizer of the group, said service workers in general are treated poorly by the food industry and employees deserve dignity as well as the ability to negotiate.
“There is a lack of respect for workers in the service industry and we are treated like passengers, like props, instead of valued members of the company,” Lemon said. “That’s how the system is set up, and we’re trying to suggest that maybe that’s not the only way. I just hope it’s like a first step that this process has really started. And I just want to finish my shift.
Another worker said wages are stagnating and hopes to see a pay increase consistent with what other service sector workers in the city are receiving.
“I know what other baristas are paid and our starting salary is not close to that,” a shift manager at the store said Thursday night.
If management chooses not to voluntarily recognize Southern coffee workers, the group says they have a supermajority and will win the election. They also plan to show solidarity with other cafe workers by hosting events together in the future, although it’s not yet clear how many stores will join their efforts. On Friday, a few other organizers and friends gathered at a table to support the baristas and watch the delivery.
Paige McCay, organizer of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United Music City, helped workers write the letter and think about how best to deliver it. She says she is proud of their bravery and commitment to improving working conditions for every barista in the state, and looks forward to helping with ongoing organizing drives.
The letter follows the ongoing fight to unionize a Starbucks in Memphis. This effort led to the dismissal of employees after announcing plans to push for safer working conditions and better wages, according to Action News 5. Starbucks employees in other states face dismissal and retaliation for similar reasons, according to the New York Times.
Although not yet set in stone, Three Brothers employees are confident in their letter and the likelihood that they can unionize without being rebuffed by Wilt.
“It’s the best welcome we could have hoped for,” said an organizer after delivering the letter.
Wilt Jr. is the son of Toby Wilt Sr., who is a member of the Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame. Wilt Jr. was not immediately available for comment on Friday. As the employees returned to work, Lemon placed a small bouquet of roses on the counter next to a second panel.
“The union makes our coffee strong,” it read.