, ,

Mary Gundel was a celebrated Dollar General manager, at a store near Tampa. She’d received a letter from headquarters telling her she was a top-performing employee. But Gundel saw some room for improvement, even if in ways that required efforts at the top. That is, corporate headquarters had cut employee hours, and now her store was understaffed. Subsequently, customers complained about the store being unclean. The situation even felt unsafe. In Gundel’s words:

I open the store at 8 a.m., and I basically had to run the entire store. I had to check in and out customers, I had to do my paperwork, I had to check in vendors, I had to check in a mystery truck that just showed up out of nowhere. I had no help, I don’t have enough hours given to me for me to actually be a manager within the business. And that’s a big safety concern within the company.

But when requests for more help were stymied by Dollar General management, Gundel decided to share her observations and concerns with a much wider audience: TikTok’s 1 billion users. She put up a half-dozen videos called “Retail Store Manager Life.” She coined the hashtag #putinaticket, a nod to the futile corporate mechanism for reporting problems. Gundel’s videos went viral; one of them attracted nearly 2 million views. They also inspired other employees to create their own videos, presenting their own stores and listing their concerns.

The videos had another effect too: They also got her fired, about a week after she posted the first video. Gundel acknowledged that she knew making the videos carried some risk and could get her in trouble. But for many viewers, that kind of trouble is what the late Rep. John Lewis would have called “good trouble.”

Gundel no longer brings home the $51,000 annual salary she’d earned as a store manager, but her time is filled with other activities, including organizing a “movement” of overworked, disrespected workers. She also has called for Dollar General employees to unionize. From this social media platform, she has shone a light on other workers and their desperate need for improved working conditions.

Among the videos inspired by her effort was one by a Dollar General shopper, who thanked Gundel for her advocacy and credited her with a cleaner store: “Thank you, Mary, for going viral and holding your ground and standing up to corporate and losing your job, because it wasn’t done in vain,” the woman reports. Sweeping the camera around, she notes, “I’m proud to go into a Dollar General now, because look at it. Look at it.”

Beyond causal viewers and consumers, Gundel’s videos have attracted the attention of Senator Patty Murray, D. Wash. Senator Murray also chairs the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, in which role she has initiated an inquiry into employment practices at Dollar General, as well as Dollar Tree. In a letter to Dollar General, Murray noted that the discount chain has achieved record growth and profits, while cutting budgets for store operations and earning multiple worker safety violation citations. Cuttingly, she alleged, “While Dollar General’s employees struggle to make ends meet, your own compensation as CEO was a staggering 986 times greater than the median employee’s annual earnings.”

Gundel might have sparked something of a revolution, with the potential for long-term change. But her rationale is less grandiose: “Everyone has their breaking point,” she said. “You can only feel unappreciated for so long.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think Mary Gundel’s TikTok videos will have a positive impact on workplaces?
  2. How should Dollar General respond, if employees post TikTok videos complaining about conditions at their stores? What is the right way to respond to ensure employee satisfaction. What about if the goal is better public relations?
  3. Should companies fire workers who post videos complaining about working conditions?

Source: Michael Corkery, “How a Dollar General Employee Went Viral On TikTok,” The New York Times, April 18, 2022; Adam Sabes, “Florida Woman Says Dollar General Fired Her over Viral TikTok Videos,” Fox Business, April 24, 2022; Dave Jamieson, “Senator Hammers Dollar General, Dollar Tree Over ‘Shameful Labor Practices,'” HuffPost, April 22, 2022