Mary Gundel received a letter from Dollar General’s corporate office congratulating her on being one of the company’s top performers. In honour of her hard work and dedication, the company gave Ms Gundel a lapel pin that read, “DG: Top 5%.”
“Wear it with pride,” the letter said.
Millisecond. Gundel did just that, pinning the pin to her black and yellow Dollar General uniform, next to his dog tag. “I wanted the world to see it,” he said.
Millisecond. Gundel loved her job as manager of the Dollar General store in Tampa, Florida. It was fast, unpredictable and even exciting. She especially liked the challenge of calming down belligerent customers and chasing down thieves. 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 aisles because there weren’t enough workers to unpack them. Days were spent running the store alone for long periods because the company allocated few hours for other employees to work. Cranky customers complaining about out-of-stock items.
So, on the morning of March 28, between checking the register and putting tags on clothes, Ms Gundel, 33, put her iPhone down and hit record.
The result was a six-part critique, “Retail Store Manager Life,” in which Ms Gundel exposed working conditions within the fast-growing retail chain with stores that are common in rural areas.
“Talking about this is actually kind of bad,” Ms Gundel said as she looked at her camera. “Technically, I could get into a lot of trouble.”
But he added: “Whatever happens, happens. Something needs to be said, and there need to be some changes, or they’ll probably end up losing a lot of people.”
His videos, which he posted on TikTok, have gone viral, including one that has been viewed 1.8 million times.
And with that, Ms Gundel was instantly transformed from a loyal lieutenant in Dollar General management to an outspoken dissident who risked her career to describe the familiar working conditions for retail employees in the United States.
as Mrs Gundel had predicted, Dollar General soon fired her. She was fired less than a week after posting the first video critical of her, but not before inspiring other Dollar General store managers, many of them women who work in stores in poor areas, to speak out on TikTok.
“I’m so tired I can’t even talk,” 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’ve been so scared to post this until now,” said another unidentified woman, as she ushered onlookers past a Dollar General store as she discussed how she was going to work alone due to job cuts.
“This will be my last day,” he said, quoting Ms Gundel’s Videos. “I’m not going to do this anymore.”
In a statement, Dollar General said, “We offer many avenues for our teams to make their voices heard, including our open door policy and routine engagement surveys. We use this feedback to help us identify and address concerns, improve our workplace, and better serve our employees, customers, and communities. We are disappointed every time an employee feels that we have not met these goals, and we use those situations as additional opportunities to listen and learn.
“Although we do not agree with all of the statements that Ms Gundel is currently making, we are doing that here.”
Before March 28, Ms Gundel’s TikTok page was a mix of posts about hair extensions and her recent dental surgery. Now it’s a daily digest dedicated to fomenting revolt at a major American company. She is trying to build what she calls a “movement” of workers who feel overworked and disrespected and is encouraging Dollar General employees to form a union.
Nearly every day, Ms Gundel posts a recently “elected spokeswoman” on TikTok, each a woman who works for or recently worked for Dollar General, from Arkansas, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and elsewhere. These women have been assigned to answer questions and concerns from their co-workers in those states, and most are keeping their identities hidden because they are worried about losing their jobs.
Social media not only gives workers a platform to vent and connect, but it also empowers ordinary workers like Ms Gundel to become labour leaders in the post-pandemic workplace. Millisecond. Gundel’s viral videos surfaced as Christian Smalls, an Amazon warehouse employee in Staten Island who was derided by the company as “not smart or articulate,” organized the first major union in Amazon history last month.
Millisecond. Gundel, who often dyes her hair pink and purple and has the long, painted fingernails she uses to open containers at work, has been able to get through it because other workers see themselves in her.
“Everyone has their breaking point,” he said in a telephone interview. “You can only feel unappreciated for so long.”
Millisecond. Gundel planned a long career at Dollar General when he started working at his first store in Georgia three years ago. She has three children, including one who is autistic, and her husband works as a defence 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. Millisecond. Gundel moved to Tampa as a Dollar General store manager in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit.
The store used to have about 198 hours a week to allocate to a staff of about seven people, he said. But at the end of the last month, he only had about 130 hours to allocate, which was one full-time employee and one part-time employee less than when he started.
With few hours to devote to her staff, Ms Gundel often had to operate the store on her own for long periods, typically working six days and up to 60 hours a week without overtime pay.
Millisecond. Gundel’s protest was sparked by a TikTok video posted by a customer complaining about the scruffy state of a Dollar General store. Millisecond. Gundel had heard these complaints from his clients. Why are the boxes blocking the aisles? Why are the shelves not fully stocked?
She understood his frustration. But the blame for the employees is misplaced, she said.
“Instead of getting mad at the people who work there, trying to handle all your workload, why don’t you say something to the really important people in the company?” Millisecond. Gundel said on TikTok. “Why don’t you demand more from the company to start financing the stores to be able to do all of this?”
Millisecond. Gundel soon tapped into a network of co-workers, some of whom had already spoken publicly about challenges at work. They included Crystal McBride, who worked at Dollar General in Utah and had made a video showing her store’s dumpster overflowing with the trash that people had dumped there.
“Thank you guys for adding more dirty work for me,” Ms McBride, 37, said in her post.
She said in an interview that Dollar General had fired her earlier this month and that her manager had warned her about some of her videos. As someone who came out of an abusive relationship with “just the clothes on her back” and lost her 11-year-old daughter to cancer in 2018, “I wasn’t afraid of losing my job,” she said. “He was not going to be silenced.”
Neither does Mrs Gundel. As her online following grew, she kept posting more videos, many of them now angry.
She spoke about a customer who had pulled a knife on her and a man who had reached into her car in the store’s parking lot and tried to pull her out the window.
He said the company’s way of avoiding serious problems was to bury them in bureaucracy. “Do you know what they tell you? ‘Put a fine,’” she said.
Millisecond. Gundel started using the hashtag #PutInATicket, which other TikTok users tagged in their videos.
On the night of March 29, Ms Gundel posted a video saying that her boss had called her that day to discuss her videos. He told her to review the company’s social media policy, she said. She told him that she was very aware of politics.
“They didn’t specifically tell me to take down my videos, but they recommended it,” he said in the video. “To save my job and my future career and where I want to go.”
He closed his eyes for a moment.
“I had to respectfully decline” to remove the videos, he said. “I feel it would be against my morals and integrity to do so.”
Millisecond. Gundel also received a call from one of the top executives who had sent her the “DG: 5%” pin that she was so proud of. Millisecond. Gundel insisted on recording the call to protect himself from her. The executive said that she only wanted to speak to Ms Gundel’s concerns, but she did not want to be searched. The call ended politely but quickly.
On April 1, Ms Gundel reported for work at 6 a.m. “Guess what,” she said in a post from outside the store. “I just got fired.”
He added: “It’s pretty sad that a store manager or anyone else has to go viral on a social media site to be heard, to get help in their store.”
Millisecond. Gundel continues to post videos regularly and recently started driving for Uber and Lyft.
While Ms Gundel’s unionization effort may be an uphill struggle, some people say it has already made an impact. In a recent TikTok video, a woman shopping at a Dollar General in Florida credited Ms Gundel with forcing the company to fix up the store she shops at.
“Look at the refrigerators, everything is stacked in there,” the woman said as her camera panned the aisles. “You have toilet paper up to the ceiling, you guys.”
“Thank you, Mary, for going viral and standing your ground and standing up to the corporations and losing your job, because it wasn’t in vain,” she said. “I’m proud to walk into a Dollar General now because look at it. Look at it.”