How a dollar public servant got the virus on TikTok

In January 2021, Marie Gundel received a letter from Dollar General’s office congratulating her on being one of the company’s best performing employees. In honor of her hard work and dedication, the company gave Ms. Gundel a pin that read “DG: Top 5%”.

The letter reads: “Wear it with pride.”

Mrs. Gundel did just that, affixing the pin to her black and yellow dollar general uniform, next to her name badge. “I wanted the world to see it,” she said.

Mrs. Gundel loved her job running a Dollar General store in Tampa, Florida, it was fast-paced, unpredictable and even exciting. She loved the challenge of calming warring customers and chasing down shoplifters. She was earning about $51,000 a year, much more than the average income in Tampa.

But the job had its challenges, too: delivery trucks that would have appeared without warning, leaving boxes piled in the aisles because there weren’t enough workers to unload them. Days were spent running the store for long periods of time by herself because the company only allotted long hours for other employees to work. Cranky customers complain about out-of-stock items.

So on the morning of March 28, between running the record and labeling clothes, Ms. Gundel, 33, backed up her iPhone and set a record.

The result was a six-part critique, “The Life of a Retail Store Manager,” in which Ms. Gundel revealed working conditions within a rapidly growing retail chain, with stores common in rural areas.

It’s kinda bad to talk about this,” said Mrs. Gundel, looking at her camera. “Technically speaking, I might be in a lot of trouble.”

But she added, “Whatever happens is going to happen. Something has to be said, and there have to be some changes, or they are likely to end up losing a lot of people.”

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

With this, Ms. Gundel immediately transformed from a loyal lieutenant in the Dollar General Administration to an outspoken dissident who risked her career to describe working conditions familiar to retail employees across the United States.

As Mrs. Gundel expected, Dollar General quickly fired her. She was let go less than a week after her first significant video was posted, but not before she inspired other Dollar General store managers, many of whom are women working in stores in impoverished areas, to speak out on TikTok.

“I am too tired to speak,” said one woman, who described herself as a 24-year-old store manager but did not give her name. “Give me my life back.”

“I was too scared to post this yet,” another unidentified woman said, as she walked viewers into a Dollar General store while discussing how she was forced to work alone due to an employment outage.

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

In a statement, Dollar General said: “We provide 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 any time an employee feels that we have not met these goals and use these situations as additional opportunities to listen and learn.

“While we do not agree with all the statements currently made by Ms. Gundel, we do so here.”

Prior to March 28, Ms. Gundel’s TikTok page was a jumble of posts about hair extensions and her recent dental surgery. Now it is a daily summary dedicated to fomenting rebellion in a major American corporation. It is trying to build what it calls a “movement” for workers who feel overwhelmed and disrespected and is encouraging Dollar General employees to form a union.

Almost every day, Ms. Gundel advertises on TikTok for her newly “elected spokesperson” — every woman who has worked for Dollar General or has worked there recently — from Arkansas, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and elsewhere. These women are tasked with answering questions and concerns from fellow employees in those states and most of them are concealing their identities because they are worried about losing their jobs.

Not only does social media provide workers with a platform to vent and connect with one another, but it enables ordinary workers like Ms. Gundel to become labor leaders in the workplace after the pandemic. Ms. Gundel’s viral videos surfaced when Christian Smalls, an Amazon warehouse employee in Staten Island who was derided by the company as “not clever or obvious,” staged the first major union in Amazon history last month.

Mrs. Gundel—who often dyes her hair pink and purple and has long nails that she uses to cut open packages at work—has been able to break through, it seems, because other workers see themselves in her.

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

Ms. Gundel planned a long career at Dollar General when she started 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 an area manager at Waffle House restaurants. Her grandmother worked in the gift shop at the Kennedy Space Center. Ms. Gundel moved to Tampa as director of the Dollar General Store in February 2020, just before the pandemic.

She added that the store used to work about 198 hours a week, allocating a staff of seven. But by the end of last month, she only had about 130 hours to allocate, which equates to one full-time employee and one less part-time employee than when she started.

With not many hours available to her employees, Ms. Gundel often had to run the store alone for long periods, usually working six days and up to 60 hours a week without overtime pay.

Ms Gundel’s protest was prompted by a video on TikTok posted by a customer complaining about the disturbing condition of the Dollar General store. Mrs. Gundel has heard these complaints from her clients. Why do chests block the aisles? Why aren’t the shelves completely full?

I understand their frustration. But she said the blame on the staff was misplaced.

“Instead of getting angry at the people who work there, and trying to deal with all their workload, why not say something to the big people in the company?” Ms. Gundel said on TikTok. “Why not ask more from the company so they can actually start financing the stores so they can get all this stuff done?”

Ms. Gundel soon recruited a network of fellow employees, some of whom had already announced challenges at work. Among them was Crystal McBride, who worked for Dollar General in Utah and filmed a video that showed the trash can in her store overflowing with trash that people deposited there.

“Thank you guys for adding some more dirty work for me,” 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 got out of an abusive relationship “only with the clothes on my back” and lost her 11-year-old daughter to cancer in 2018, “I wasn’t afraid of losing my job,” she said. “I will not be silenced.”

Nor was Mrs. Gundel. As her online following grew, she continued to post more videos, many of which were increasingly angry.

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

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

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

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

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

She closed her eyes for a moment.

“I respectfully had to refuse” to have the videos removed, she said. “I feel it would be against my morals and integrity to do so.”

Ms. Gundel also received a call from a senior executive who sent her the “DG: 5%” PIN of which she was very proud. Mrs. Gundel insisted that the call be recorded to protect herself. The executive said she only wanted to talk about Ms. Gundel’s concerns, but did not want to be on record. The call was politely but quickly ended.

On April 1, Ms. Gundel reported working at 6 a.m., “Guess what,” she said in a message from outside the store. “I just got fired.”

She added, “It’s sad that a store manager or someone has to spread so quickly on a social media site to be heard, in order to get some help in their store.”

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

While Ms. Gundel’s union efforts may have been uphill, some people say she has already had an impact. In a recent TikTok video, a woman shopping at Dollar General in Florida credited Ms. Gundel for forcing the company to beautify the store she’s shopping in.

“Look at the refrigerators – everything is stacked there,” said the woman, as her camera scoured the aisles. “They have toilet paper on the roof, you all.”

“Thank you, Mary, for spreading so quickly and standing up to companies and your job loss, because it wasn’t in vain,” she said. “I’m proud to go to Dollar General now, because look at it. Look at it.”

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