How a Dollar General employee went viral on TikTok

By Michael Corkery, The New York Times Company

In January 2021, Mary Gundel received a letter from Dollar General’s corporate office congratulating her for being one of the company’s top performers. In honor of his hard work and dedication, the company presented Gundel with a lapel pin that read “DG: Top 5%.”

“Wear it proudly,” the letter read.

That’s exactly what Gundel did when he affixed the pin to his black and yellow Dollar General uniform, next to his name badge. “I wanted the world to see it,” she said.

Gundel loved her job as manager of the Dollar General store in Tampa, Florida. It was fast, unpredictable and even exciting. She especially enjoyed the challenge of calming belligerent customers and pursuing shoplifters. She earned about $51,000 a year, well above the median income in Tampa.

But the job also had its challenges: delivery trucks showing up unannounced, leaving boxes stacked in the aisles because there weren’t enough workers to unpack them. Days spent running the store alone for long periods of time, as the company only allowed a limited number of hours for other employees to work. Grumpy customers complaining about out of stock items.

So on the morning of March 28, between managing the register and tagging clothes, Gundel, 33, propped up his iPhone and hit a record high.

The result was a six-part review, “Retail Store Manager Life,” in which Gundel laid bare working conditions within the fast-growing retail chain, with stores that are commonplace in the rural areas.

“Me talking about it is actually pretty bad,” Gundel said, looking at her camera. “Technically, I could be in a lot of trouble.”

But she added: “Whatever happens, happens. Something needs to be said, and there needs to be changes, or they’re probably going to end up losing a lot of people. »

Her videos, which she posted on TikTok, have gone viral, with one viewed 1.8 million times.

And with that, Gundel instantly went from a loyal lieutenant in Dollar’s top management to an outspoken dissident who risked her career to describe working conditions familiar to retail employees across the United States.

As Gundel predicted, Dollar General quickly fired her. She was fired less than a week after posting her first critical video, but not before inspiring other Dollar General store managers, many of them women working in stores in impoverished areas, to step up. express on TikTok.

“I’m so tired I can’t even speak,” said one woman, who described herself as a 24-year-old store manager, but did not give her name. “Give me back my life.”

“I was so scared to post this until now,” said another unidentified woman, as she walked viewers through a Dollar General store while explaining how she was forced to work alone because of the cuts. labor.

“It will be my last day,” she said, citing Gundel’s videos. “I don’t do that anymore.”

In a statement, Dollar General said, “We provide many opportunities for our teams to have their voices heard, including our open door policy and routine engagement surveys. We use this feedback to help us identify and resolve issues, improve our workplace, and better serve our employees, customers, and communities. We are disappointed whenever an employee feels we have not achieved these goals and we use these situations as additional opportunities to listen and learn.

“While we don’t agree with all of the statements Ms Gundel is currently making, we do here.”

Prior to March 28, Gundel’s TikTok page was a mix of posts about hair extensions and her recent dental surgery. Today is a daily digest devoted to fomenting revolt in a major American corporation. She tries to build what she calls a “movement” of workers who feel overworked and disrespected and encourages Dollar General employees to form a union.

Almost daily, Gundel announces on TikTok a “newly elected spokesperson” — each a woman who works for Dollar General or has worked there recently — from Arkansas, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia -Western and other places. These women have been tasked with answering the questions and concerns of their colleagues in these states and most keep their identities hidden because they fear losing their jobs.

Social media not only gives workers a platform to express themselves and connect with each other, it allows rank-and-file workers like Gundel to become union leaders. Gundel’s viral videos emerged as Christian Smalls, an Amazon warehouse worker in New York who was ridiculed by the company as ‘neither smart nor articulate’, organized the first major labor union last month. of Amazon history.

Gundel – who often dyes her hair pink and purple and has long painted fingernails which she uses to open packages at work – was able to break through, it seems, because other workers see themselves in her.

“Everyone has their breaking point,” she said in a phone interview. “You can only feel unappreciated for so long.”

Gundel was planning a long career at Dollar General when she started working at her first store in Georgia three years ago. She has three children, one of whom is autistic, and her husband works for a defense contractor. She grew up in Titusville, Florida, near Cape Canaveral. Her mother was a district manager at Waffle House restaurants. Her grandmother worked in the Kennedy Space Center gift shop. Gundel moved to Tampa as Dollar General store manager in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit.

The store had about 198 hours a week to allocate to a staff of about seven people, she said. But at the end of last month, she only had about 130 hours to allocate, which is one full-time employee and one part-time employee less than when she started.

Not having as many hours to devote to her staff, Gundel often had to operate the store alone for long periods of time, typically working six days and up to 60 hours a week without overtime pay.

Gundel’s protest was prompted by a TikTok video posted by a customer complaining about the disheveled state of a Dollar General store. Gundel had heard these complaints from his own customers. Why do boxes block aisles? Why aren’t the shelves fully stocked?

She understood their frustration. But the blame on employees is misplaced, she said.

“Instead of getting mad at the people who work there, trying to handle all of their workloads, why don’t you say something to the real big people in the company?” Gundel said on TikTok. “Why don’t you demand more of the company to start funding the stores to be able to do all of this?”

Gundel quickly tapped into a network of colleagues, some of whom had already gone public with the challenges at work. Among them was Crystal McBride, who worked at Dollar General in Utah and had made a video showing her store’s dumpster overflowing with trash people had dumped there.

“Thank you guys for adding a little more dirty work for me,” McBride, 37, said in his post.

She said in an interview that Dollar General fired her earlier this month and her manager warned her about some of her videos. As someone who had come out of an abusive relationship with “just the clothes on my back” and lost his 11-year-old daughter to cancer in 2018, “I wasn’t afraid of losing my job. “, she said. “I wasn’t going to shut up.”

Neither does Gundel. As her online audience grew, she continued to post more videos, many of them increasingly angry.

She spoke of a customer who pulled a knife on her and a man who reached her car in the store’s parking lot and tried to pull her out the window.

She said the company’s way of avoiding serious problems was to bury them in bureaucracy. “Do you know what they tell you? “Put in a ticket,” she said.

Gundel started using the hashtag #PutInATicket, which other TikTok users tagged in their own videos.

On the night of March 29, Gundel posted a video, saying her boss called her that day to discuss her videos. He told her to review the company’s social media policy, she said. She told him she was well aware of the policy.

“I was not specifically told to take down my videos, but it was recommended,” she said in the video. “To save my job and my future career and where I want to go.”

She closed her eyes for a moment.

“I had to respectfully decline” to delete the videos, she said. “I feel like it would be against my morals and my integrity to do so.”

Gundel also received a call from one of the senior executives who had sent her the “DG: 5%” pin she was so proud of. Gundel insisted on recording the call to protect himself. The executive said she just wanted to talk about Gundel’s concerns, but didn’t want to be recorded. The call ended politely but quickly.

On April 1, Gundel showed up for work at 6 a.m. “Guess what,” she said in a message posted outside the store. “I just got fired.”

She added: “It’s quite sad that a store manager or anyone has to go viral on a social media site to be listened to, in order to get help in their store.”

Gundel continues to post videos regularly and recently started driving for Uber and Lyft.

While Gundel’s organizing effort may be a difficult one, some people say she’s already had an impact. In a recent TikTok video, a woman shopping at a Dollar General in Florida credited Gundel with forcing the company to spruce up the store she shops at.

“Look at the fridges – everything is stacked in there,” the woman said as her camera scanned the aisles. “They’ve got toilet paper on the roof, y’all.”

“Thank you, Mary, for going viral, for holding on, for standing up to the companies, and for losing your job, because it wasn’t in vain,” she said. “I’m proud to step into a Dollar General now, because look at it. Look at this.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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