How a dollar general went viral at TikTok

In January 2021, Mary Gundel received a letter from Dollar General’s corporate office congratulating her on being one of the company’s best-performing employees. In honor of her hard work and dedication, the company presented Ms. Gundel with a lapel pin with the words “DG: Top 5%”.

“Wear it proudly,” the letter said.

Mrs. Gundel did just that by attaching the pin to her black-and-yellow General Dollar uniform next to her name badge. “I wanted the world to see it,” she said.

Mrs. Gundel loved her job running the Dollar General store in Tampa, Florida. She was fast, unpredictable, and even exciting. She especially liked the challenge of reassuring warring customers and chasing thieves. She earned about $ 51,000 a year, much more than the average income in Tampa.

But the job also had its challenges: delivery trucks that showed up without warning, leaving boxes piled up on the aisles because there weren’t enough workers to unpack them. Days spent running the store for long periods alone because the company spent so many hours working for other employees. Whimsical customers complain about exhausted items.

So, on the morning of March 28, between the release of the register and the labeling of clothes, 33-year-old Ms. Gundel propped up her iPhone and broke the record.

The result was a six-part critique, The Life of a Retail Store Manager, in which Ms. Gundel revealed the working conditions in the fast-growing retail chain, which is a common sight in rural areas.

“I’m talking about this, it’s actually a little bad,” Ms. Gundel said as she stared at her camera. “Technically, we could get in a lot of trouble.”

But she added: “Whatever happens, happens. Something needs to be said and there needs to be some change, or many people are likely to lose. “

Her videos, which she posted on TikTok, went viral, including the one that has been viewed 1.8 million times.

And with that, Ms. Gundel instantly changed from a loyal lieutenant in the management of Dollar General to an outspoken dissident who risked his career to describe the working conditions familiar to retail employees in the United States.

As Mrs. Gundel had predicted, General Dollar soon fired her. She was released less than a week after publishing her first critical video, but not before she inspired other Dollar General store managers, many of whom are women working in stores in poor areas, to speak on TikTok.

“I’m so tired I can’t even speak,” said a 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 publish this so far,” said another unidentified woman as she walked viewers through a Dollar General, discussing how she was forced to work alone due to layoffs.

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

In a statement, Dollar General said: “We provide many opportunities for our teams to hear their voices, including our open door policy and routine engagement surveys. We use this feedback to help us identify and address issues, improve our workplace, and better serve our employees, customers, and communities. We are frustrated every time an employee feels that we have not achieved these goals and we use these situations as additional opportunities for listening and learning.

“Although we do not agree with all the statements that Ms Gundel is currently making, we are doing so here.”

Prior to March 28, Ms. Gundel’s TikTok page was a mix of posts about hair extensions and her recent dental surgery. Now this is a daily digest dedicated to inciting a riot in a large American company. She is trying to build what she calls a “movement” of workers who feel overwhelmed and disrespected, and encourages Dollar General employees to form a union.

Almost every day, Ms. Gundel announces a newly elected “speaker” at TikTok – each of whom is a woman who works for or has recently worked for Dollar General – from Arkansas, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and elsewhere. These women are tasked with answering questions and concerns from fellow employees in these states, and most of them keep their identities hidden because they are worried about losing their jobs.

Social media not only gives workers a platform to drop out and connect with each other, but also enables regular workers like Ms. Gundel to become leaders in the workplace after the pandemic. Ms. Gundel’s viral videos emerged as Christian Smalls, an employee of Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse who was ridiculed by the company as “not smart or articulate,” organizing the first major alliance in Amazon’s history last month.

Ms. Gundel – who often dyes her hair pink and purple and has long dyed her nails, which she uses to cut packaging at work – seems to have managed to break through because other workers see themselves in it.

“Everyone has their turning point,” she said in a telephone interview. “You can only feel invaluable for so long.”

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

The store had about 198 hours a week for a staff of about seven, she said. But by the end of last month, it had only about 130 hours of distribution, which was equivalent to one full-time employee and one part-time employee less than when it started.

Because she does not give so many hours to her staff, Ms Gundel often had to run the shop alone for long periods, usually working six days and up to 60 hours a week without overtime.

Ms Gundel’s protest was sparked by a video on TikTok posted by a customer complaining about the dilapidated condition of the Dollar General store. Ms Gundel heard these complaints from her own clients. Why do boxes block paths? Why are the shelves not fully loaded?

She understood their disappointment. But blaming employees is inappropriate, she said.

“Instead of getting angry at the people who work there, trying to handle their whole workload, why not say something to the real big people in the company?” Ms. Gundel told TikTok. “Why don’t you ask the company for more so that they can actually start financing the stores so they can do all this?”

Ms. Gundel soon joined a network of fellow employees, some of whom were already publicly aware of the challenges in the workplace. They included Crystal McBride, who worked at Dollar General in Utah and had made a video showing that her store’s container was full of garbage that people had deposited there.

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

She said in an interview that Dollar General fired her earlier this month and that her manager had warned her about some of her videos. As someone who had left a violent relationship with “only the clothes on my back” and lost her 11-year-old daughter to cancer in 2018, “I was not afraid of losing my job,” she said. “I would not be silent.”

Neither was Mrs. Gundel. As her online followers grew, she continued to post more videos, many of which became increasingly angry.

She was talking about a customer who pulled her with a knife and a man who reached into her car in the store parking lot and tried to pull her out the window.

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

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

On the night of March 29, Ms. Gundel posted a video saying that her boss had called 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 acquainted with politics.

“I was not specifically told to download my videos, but I was advised to,” 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 refuse to remove the videos,” she said. “I feel it would be against my morals and integrity to do so.”

Ms Gundel also received a call from one of the top executives, who sent her the “DG: 5%” pin, which she was so proud of. Ms. Gundel insisted on recording the conversation to defend herself. The CEO said she just wanted to talk about Ms Gundel’s concerns, but did not want to be recorded. The call ended politely but quickly.

On April 1, Ms. Gundel announced work at 6 a.m. “Guess what,” she said in a post-store post. “I just got fired.”

She added: “It is very sad that a store manager or someone else has to go viral on a social media site in order to be listened to in order to get help in their store.

Ms. Gundel continues to publish videos regularly and has recently started driving for Uber and Lyft.

Although Ms. Gundel’s efforts to unite unions may be a difficult one, some say she has already made an impact. In a recent video on TikTok, a woman shopping at Dollar General in Florida admits that Ms. Gundel has forced the company to improve the store where she shops.

“Look at the refrigerators – everything is arranged there,” the woman said as her camera scanned the aisles. “They have toilet paper on the roof, everyone.”

“Thank you, Mary, for going viral and holding on to your position and standing up to the corporation and losing your job because it wasn’t in vain,” she said. “I’m proud to be in the Dollar General now, because look at that. Look at him.”

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