In January 2021, Mary Gundel received a letter from Dollar General’s corporate office congratulating her on being one of the company’s best employees. As part of her hard work and dedication, the company gave Ms. Gundel a lapel pin that read: “DG: Top 5%.”
“Wear it proudly,” the letter said.
Ms. Gundel did just that, attaching a needle to her black-and-yellow dollar general’s uniform, next to her name badge. “I wanted the world to see it,” she said.
Ms. Gundel loved her job running the Dollar General store in Tampa, Florida. He was fast, unpredictable, and even exciting. She especially liked the challenge of calming belligerent customers and persecuting thieves. She earned about $ 51,000 a year, far more than the average income in Tampa.
But the job also had its challenges: delivery trucks that would show up unannounced, leaving boxes piled up in the aisles because there weren’t enough workers to unpack them. She spent her days running the store on her own, as the company only gave so many hours to other employees to work. Grumpy customers who complain about the shortcomings of the item.
So on the morning of March 28, between keeping records and putting labels on clothes, Ms. Gundel, 33, picked up her iPhone and hit a record.
The result was a six-part critique, “The Life of a Retail Store Manager,” in which Ms. Gundel exposed working conditions within a fast-growing retail chain, with actions that are a common sight in rural areas.
“I’m talking about this is actually kind of bad,” Ms. Gundel said as she stared at her camera. “Technically, I could get into big trouble.”
But she added: “Whatever happens, happens. Something needs to be said, and there has to be some change, or it will probably end up losing a lot of people. ”
Her videos, which she posted on TikTok, went viral, including the one that was viewed 1.8 million times.
In addition, Ms. Gundel has currently transformed from a loyal lieutenant in Dollar General Management to an outspoken dissident who risked his career to describe the working conditions known to retail employees across the United States.
As Ms. Gundel predicted, Dollar General soon fired her. She was fired less than a week after she released her first critical video, but not before she inspired other Dollar General store managers, many of them women working in stores in poor areas, to speak 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 publish this so far,” said another unidentified woman as she led viewers through the Dollar General store as she talked about how she was forced to work alone to reduce her workforce.
“This will be my last day,” she said, quoting Ms. Gundel’s videos. “I’m not doing this anymore.”
In a statement, Dollar General said: “We provide many ways for our teams to have their voices heard, including our open door policy and routine engagement polls. We use this feedback to help us identify and resolve issues, improve our workplace, and better serve our employees, clients, and communities. We are disappointed every time an employee feels that we have not met these goals and we use these situations as an additional opportunity to listen and learn.
“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 it is a daily summary dedicated to inciting revolt in a large American company. She is trying to build what she calls a “movement” of workers who feel overworked and disrespected and encourages Dollar General employees to form a union.
Almost every day, Ms. Gundel announces a newly elected spokesperson 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 have been given the task of answering the questions and concerns of colleagues employed in those states and most of them are hiding their identities because they are worried that they will lose their jobs.
Social media not only gives workers a platform to call and connect with each other, but empowers ordinary workers like Ms. Gundel to become leaders in the workplace after a pandemic. Ms. Gundel’s viral videos surfaced as Christian Smalls, an employee of Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse that the company ridiculed as “not smart or articulate,” organized the first major union in Amazon’s history last month.
Ms. Gundel – who often dyes her hair pink and purple and has long-painted nails that she uses to open the packaging at work – has managed to break through, it seems, because other workers see themselves in it.
“Everyone has their own breaking 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 working at her first store in Georgia three years ago. She has three children, including one with autism, and her husband works for a defense company. She grew up in Titusville, Florida, near Cape Canaveral. Her mother was the district director at Waffle House restaurants. Her grandmother worked in a gift shop at the Kennedy Space Center. Ms. Gundel moved to Tampa as Dollar General store manager in February 2020, just before the pandemic.
The store had about 198 hours a week for a staff of about seven people, she said. But by the end of last month, it had only about 130 hours to allocate, which is equal to one full-time employee and one part-time employee less than when it started.
Since there were not that many hours for her staff, Ms. Gundel often had to run the shop on her own for long periods, usually working six days and up to 60 hours a week without paying overtime.
Ms. Gundel’s protest sparked a TikTok video posted by a customer who complained about the dilapidated condition of the Dollar General store. Ms. Gundel heard these complaints from her customers. Why do boxes block passages? Why are the shelves not completely filled?
She understood their frustration. But the blame on employees is inappropriate, she said.
“Instead of being angry at the people who work there, trying to handle all their work, why don’t you say something to the real great people in the company?” Ms. Gundel said on TikTok. “Why don’t you ask more of the company to actually start funding the actions so they can do all this stuff?”
Ms. Gundel soon joined a network of fellow employees, some of whom have already gone public about job challenges. Among them was Crystal McBride, who worked at Dollar General in Utah and made a video that showed that the container of her store was full of garbage that people dumped there.
“Thank you guys for adding me some more dirty work,” Ms. McBride, 37, said in her post.
She said in an interview that Dollar General fired her earlier this month, and that her manager warned her about some of her videos. As someone who came out of a violent relationship with “only clothes on her back” and lost her 11-year-old daughter from cancer in 2018. “I was not afraid of losing my job,” she said. “I didn’t want to be silenced.”
Neither was Mrs. Gundel. As her online followers grew, she continued to post more and more videos, many of which were getting angrier.
She talked about a customer who pulled a knife on her 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 of avoiding serious problems was to bury them in the bureaucracy. “You know what they tell you?” ‘Put the ticket on,’ she said.
Ms. Gundel has started using the hashtag #PutInATicket, which other TikTok users have tagged in their videos.
On the night of March 29, Ms. Gundel released the video, saying her boss called her that day to discuss her videos. He told her to reconsider the company’s social media policy, she said. She told him that she was well acquainted with politics.
“I was not explicitly told to download my videos, but I was recommended,” she said in the video. “To save my job and 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 senior executives who sent her the “DG: 5%” pin she was so proud of. Ms. Gundel insisted on recording the call in order to protect herself. The CEO said she just wanted to discuss Ms. Gundel’s concerns, but didn’t want to be filmed. 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 outside the store. “I just got fired.”
She added: “It is quite sad that a store manager or anyone has to go viral on a social media site in order to be listened to in order to get help with their work.
Ms. Gundel continues to publish videos regularly and has recently started driving for Uber and Lyft.
Although Ms. Gundel’s union effort may be difficult, some people say she has already had an impact. In a recent TikTok video, a woman shopping at Dollar General in Florida attributes it to Ms. Gundel for forcing the company to beautify the store where she buys.
“Look at the refrigerators – everything is stacked inside,” the woman said as her camera moved the aisles. “They have toilet paper on the roof, everyone.”
“Thank you, Mary, for going viral and for holding on to your positions and opposing the corporation and losing your job, because it wasn’t done in vain,” she said. “I’m proud to be in Dollar General now, because look at him. Look. “