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Dollar Store Workers Organizing for Justice

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Mary Gundel of Tampa, Florida, told me she was “really excited” to start her new job at a Dollar General in February 2019. She ended up loving the return to retail work, which offered unexpected challenges daily. She also loved feeling like she was helping her community, like when she brought food trucks to the parking lot so people could watch fireworks on the Fourth of July, or opened early in the first days of the pandemic to let seniors shop.

Still, “immediately there were red flags,” Gundel said. She received virtually no training before she was put in charge of a store, given only some online videos to watch for a week before being handed the keys. At the start of the pandemic, Dollar General added more employees to meet demand, but as precautions disappeared, so did the extra help. “Budgets became nonexistent,” she said, which meant she had to frequently schedule employees to work by themselves for long stretches.

Delivery trucks began showing up at unexpected times, leaving those overstretched employees to unload them and stock shelves while also maintaining the register. Refrigerated trucks arrived without outside vendors to unload them. Cranky customers began complaining that they couldn’t get through aisles crammed with goods no one had time to unpack. Gundel’s store was so understaffed that she would leave home at 5 or 6 in the morning and wouldn’t get back until after her three kids were in bed. Her rare days off were often interrupted because someone didn’t show up for a shift.

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“Over the past year, year and a half it seems as though our tasks and workloads just increased … to the point where it’s just unmanageable,” Gundel said. Higher-ups would tell her that it would get better soon, even though it never did. “I was tired of talking, I was tired of asking for help, I was tired of all of it.”

You may have seen the TikToks and read about what came next. On March 28, Gundel decided to post a series of videos explaining the situation, hoping that customers would understand that it was an issue of low budgets, not a lack of effort from employees. By 2 p.m. that day, the videos had gotten over a million views, she said. She couldn’t keep up with the comments, many of them from Dollar General workers attesting that the conditions were similar in their stores, too. She attached the hashtag #putinaticket, what workers say they are often told by Dollar General corporate when they complain.

Gundel’s boss called her the night of March 29, warning her that she should take down the videos. She refused. She was fired three days later. “That lit a fire under everybody’s butt,” she said.

This spark has hit particularly dry kindling. As a wave of unionization sweeps across retail, dollar store workers are organizing to fight back against some of the harshest conditions in the sector. Employees across the country work in dollar stores that are understaffed and sometimes unsafe. They have had to deal with rat infestations, broken air conditioners in the summer heat, and even workplace violence. The wages are also among the lowest in retail. According to the Economic Policy Institute and The Shift Project, 92 percent of Dollar General employees make less than $15 an hour.

As a wave of unionization sweeps across retail, dollar store workers are organizing to fight back against some of the harshest conditions in the sector.

Nearly all of the workers who spoke to the Prospect said they wanted a union in their store. “We actually need a union here,” said Kenya Slaughter, who works at a Dollar General in Alexandria, Louisiana. Organizing dollar stores, which had a whopping 35,501 physical storefronts at the end of 2021—more than Walmart, McDonald’s, and Starbucks combined—is a necessary component to unions gaining a foothold in U.S. retail.

But workers are afraid, and they have good reason.

“DOLLAR GENERAL, like many employers, has been aggressively anti-union,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The company has already beaten back two unionization attempts. In 2017, workers at a store in Missouri voted to join the UFCW, only to wait nearly three years to have it certified due to legal challenges. The company closed the store three months later. Then in late 2021, six employees at a Connecticut store filed for an NLRB election but lost narrowly after the company spent thousands of dollars on so-called “union avoidance” consultants. Dollar General even has a section of its employee handbook devoted to “remaining union free.” Workers who try to unionize “are going to face a great deal of intimidation, coercion, threats,” Bronfenbrenner said. “It’s a battlefield out there.”

Dollar Tree and Family Dollar, which are owned by the same company, won’t likely be any easier. Richard Joseph, who works at Family Dollar in New Orleans, said that someone from human resources came to his store in April out of the blue and told employees why the company doesn’t believe in unions. But it had the opposite effect. “It makes me want to get a union so we could be treated fairly,” he said.

Joseph has worked for Family Dollar for nearly three years but still makes just $10.30 an hour without benefits. Because he only gets scheduled about 24 hours per week, he barely makes $400 every pay period. The company gave him an extra $2 an hour in hazard pay at the beginning of the pandemic, but took it away just a few months later. “I just want to keep fighting for what’s right,” Joseph told me. “It’s not just our store, it’s Dollar General, Dollar Tree, other dollar stores.”

The organizing at Joseph’s Family Dollar location is being aided by Step Up Louisiana, which has been talking to dollar store workers for four years. The work has recently “been picking up steam,” said Benjamin Zucker, the group’s co-director. After being called essential workers during the pandemic, only to face dangerous conditions and get paid too little to make ends meet, dollar store employees are more ready to speak out. “We’ve seen some results,” Zucker said, such as repaired air conditioners, new equipment, and small raises.

In an attempt to escalate, Step Up Louisiana recently showed up at a Dollar General shareholder meeting with partner organizations like United for Respect and Fight for $15. Three shareholders had given them proxies to enter the meeting and ask questions. Slaughter planned to tell executives that employees deserved safer working conditions, consistent air conditioning, and higher pay. “We’re not asking for much,” she said. But despite arriving at the building at 7:30, when workers tried to enter the meeting four minutes after it began, they were denied entry. “They didn’t want us to speak,” Slaughter said.

Slaughter started working at Dollar General four years ago after having her first child. Her favorite part of the job is the customers. “I have regulars, I have favorites,” she said. But it’s hard to tend to customers because she’s so frequently working alone in the store.

“Imagine your closet filled to the top with boxes of pasta, rice, sugar, canned goods,” she said. That’s what she has to unload, and then she has to put it away and break down the boxes, often with no help to cover the register. She’s had to resort to putting a sign on the door saying she was in the bathroom in order to take a break.

Then there’s safety. “There is theft, there is violence. You have to be on alert all the time at work,” she said. The week before we spoke, a customer had brandished a knife at her co-worker and store manager.

All of these issues, she argued, could be alleviated by simply having more than one person working in a store. This would allow workers to get more products on shelves, keep the stores clean, improve safety, and even combat shoplifting. “Which means more people shop more and more people buy more, it means they’re making more money,” she said.

Slaughter’s co-workers are afraid to speak out, though. “They need support and somebody who isn’t afraid, so boom here I am,” she said. “Somebody has to speak up, because things don’t have to be this way.”

ZUCKER SAID THAT there’s no immediate plan to form unions at stores. Instead, workers plan to “keep up the heat” over the summer. But he noted that “dollar store workers are taking inspiration from the bravery and success of the Starbucks and Amazon campaigns.”

Unionization never came up when Gundel was working at Dollar General. She knew talking about it would make her a target and maybe even get her fired. It wasn’t until after she was terminated and she started seeing the news about Amazon and Starbucks, and talking to organizers on those campaigns, that she realized it could make sense at Dollar General, too. “It really, truly seemed like this is what these employees need,” she said.

Lauren (a pseudonym because she fears losing her job for speaking out), a Dollar General employee from Missouri, reached out to Gundel for that kind of support. Five years ago, she quit the company after a shoplifter whom she had confronted returned to the store and beat her up. She tried to fend him off by grabbing a can of wasp spray but couldn’t get it open in time. In response, she said, the company hired a security guard for a week. “That was the extent of what they did,” she said.

Six months after quitting, Lauren came back to Dollar General. The workload was always heavy, but when the company started making workers unload refrigerated trucks it got worse. And now she’s working in a store without functioning air conditioning. After it went out, the company brought in portable units that she said do essentially nothing.

The day we spoke in early July, the store had reached 88 degrees by 2:00. The large chocolate bars in the candy aisle had slumped over, “like they’d given up on life,” Lauren said. A co-worker with severe asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease has been hospitalized twice in the last few months. Even without such severe reactions, the lack of air conditioning slows all the employees down.

“I used to really enjoy it,” she told me. “But there’s just not a whole lot anymore about Dollar General that is enjoyable.”

Lauren thinks a union would help. “If I had a union I bet I’d have air conditioning,” she said with a laugh. She added that employees would be more likely to show up for shifts and work harder if they were paid and treated better. In the meantime, she’s reached out to Gundel for help.

The challenge with unionizing, as Gundel sees it, is that store managers aren’t likely to be included in a unit, as they would probably be classified as supervisors under the National Labor Relations Act. Without the store managers, other workers will be too afraid to join. “They’re the ones that teams look up to,” she said.

Then, of course, there are the anti-union tactics that Dollar General has previously deployed, like shuttering the Missouri store in 2020. While it’s a violation of labor law to close a store in retaliation for union organizing, it’s hard for courts to enforce given the rights executives have to manage their companies, Bronfenbrenner said. One way around the danger, Gundel argued, is to file for NLRB elections “en masse,” perhaps flooding an entire district so that the company would have a harder time explaining why it shut down all its stores in an area.

In the meantime, Gundel has started her own organization, Dollar Store Workers United Association, to act in many of the ways that a union might. The organization has logged contacts from over 20,000 dollar store workers, and has had phone or video calls with four or five thousand of them. Her team has been calling regional and district managers on their behalf to raise issues, as well as filing complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and local health and fire departments. “If nothing gets done about it, they basically just make it public knowledge,” she said, posting about the issue on LinkedIn and tagging the corporate entity and executives.

Dollar Store Workers United currently has 19 state representatives, all of them current or former Dollar General employees, who handle local employees’ concerns, and three board members who make big organizational decisions. Damien Zurawski is the chief field officer. He worked at Dollar General for most of last year and now works for Family Dollar. As soon as he saw Gundel’s TikToks, he reached out. Now he works with her “almost every day on my free time,” he said. “We’re doing the best we can for all of this to be volunteer and almost all of us working full-time jobs.”

Gundel expects to grow quickly, but she’s only just starting to figure out the financial aspect of it. Unions are funded by dues. Gundel recently got a business license, which should allow her to build a website that can take membership fees and outside donations. And Zurawski has been trying to convince workers who reach out with serious complaints to donate, even if it’s just a few dollars.

While Gundel is excited about her new organization, she admits that it’s difficult to balance with her family’s needs, earning some money by driving for Lyft and Uber, and trying to find a new job. “At the same time, I get that same exact feeling I did when working at Dollar General when I had to think on my feet and make quick decisions,” she said. “That’s why it has moved as quickly as it has.”