New Orleans Recently, I shared a piece that asked the question about new found pandemic-induced appreciation for the American working class. Supposedly, there is now an understanding that they are essential. My question was: “so what?” What are employers ready to do about it? In the massive tide of worker-driven strikes we’re seeing now, the answer seems to be, nothing much at all. As the Washington Post notes , “Staffing shortfalls in key industries, such as health care, hospitality and education, have put unprecedented pressure on millions of workers, igniting a wave of labor disputes as well as new efforts to organize nationwide.” The narrowly averted railroad strike was triggered by the same worker-exhaustion, where employers with record profits were trying to penalize workers for taking even a sick day or a day off for an emergency.
On Wade’s World, I was talking to Mary Gundel, the driving force behind the newly formed, Dollar Store Workers United, and I asked her what triggered her saying “enough is enough” and going rouge as a store manager on TikTok in a series of videos. No small part of her answer was this same kind of exhaustion. She was fed up at being asked to work continuously on schedules as an exempt worker that were never as few as forty-hours per week. Talking to her about her history with Dollar General, she said she had worked for them three-and-a-half years, starting in Albany, Georgia, before moving to the Tampa area and taking over various stores there. The last one had been one of the company’s highly-touted outlets, grossing $3.5 million annually, that also offered some fresh fruit and vegetables, responding to the food deserts in the area. She was a highly awarded, valued manager in her district, but had hit her limit. She picked up her phone while behind the counter, heedless to the risks, and started recording her fifteen minutes of TikToks in six installments.
At one point, I asked her if this was just a pandemic thing or had her time at Dollar General always been a constant overload and speedup. She paused for a minute before answering. Later she texted me a screenshot of a message she had sent her supervisor three years ago about being called three straight days to open at 6AM, saying “Boy my one day off sure goes fast…especially when it doesn’t even feel like a day off and my phone is ringing off the wall with work calls…I need more family work life balance…this is getting a little ridiculous.” That was in May 2019. By May 2022, the dollar store business model had gone from “ridiculous” to impossible. After the TikTok videos, her manager spent three days trying to convince her to take them down or be fired. She wouldn’t budge. She didn’t say it, but clearly, being fired was almost a relief.
Combine high inflation with frozen minimum wages in companies that base their standards on the federal level with abysmal working conditions, which are either baked into the business model, as Gundel argues for the dollar stores, or were imposed during the pandemic and haven’t changed, often in the wake of record profits for railroads, Amazon, and many others who made out like bandits while pressing their workers like serfs, and we have the formula for workers rising all over the country, as we now see in the wave of healthcare, teachers, and other strikes and the new organizing energy, often from unexpected sources like baristas and dollar store workers.
Saying thank you and singing praises isn’t enough for workers, who like Mary Gundel, are demanding that words equal actions with real change at the worksite and cash on the barrel.