Atlanta Working with an energetic and committed team of Masters of Social Work or MSWs, as more commonly known, in their final capstone project, we sat down in a conference room at Georgia State University to do a time and temperature check in the early weeks of our collaboration. We had been speaking almost weekly since the beginning of the year, but this would be our first time together, face-to-face. I was excited to be there with their professor and my long-time comrade and friend, Fred Brooks. There were some surprises, but almost all of them pleasant.
The first was interesting to me, not because of what it says about our investigation, but about the contemporary, post-pandemic educational experience that is so much in the news and under the microscope. I wasn’t necessarily surprised that they had not met as a team yet, because all were weighed down with classes, internships, real jobs, and a million other things. I was surprised that some of them had never met each other in person! I was shocked, as we visited before the meeting over king cake, to hear that some had not been on campus in over a year. They told me the story of another classmate, also about to graduate, who had never been in the building where we were meeting or on campus in her whole time. Luckily, these were seasoned educational veterans, but so much for what commentators call the “college experience.”
I better explain why we were meeting to troubleshoot and refine our partnership. Over the last more than six months, ACORN and Local 100 had been working with interested workers employed by various dollar stores around the United States. The work had been largely remote via Zoom and social media, originally triggered by a TikTok worker whose frustration over her working conditions at a Dollar General in the Tampa area had erupted on TikTok and resonated with over one-million views. There are more than 100,000 workers at Family Dollar, Dollar Tree (Family’s owner), and Dollar General, but they are spread out over more than 20,000 locations, many of them in rural areas. Given the original spark, much of the activity was concentrated on workers who were quitting in disgust and registering their collective protest to each other, rather than really directed at the companies except in a tangential way. Nonetheless, there seemed to be legitimate concerns, but we needed to figure out a way to focus more narrowly and investigate whether these were individual grievances, unique to a particular dollar company or part and parcel of the whole system and business model. In short, we jumped at the opportunity to work with the MSWs to get a better understanding of these workplaces, their impact on the workers, and what the workers really felt about the whole deal.
Spoiler alert! We don’t have the answers yet. These are still early days, with months of work left to do. But, one of the very pleasant surprises was how quickly and effectively we were getting out of the blocks. We were especially interested in how dollar stores worked in one, big geographical market, and Atlanta seemed to be the perfect laboratory, we felt. There are 170 combined locations of dollar stores in the metro area. We needed to get a jump on this in order to get a fair sample and understanding. The team shared with me that we had already reached 41 stores about 20%, working from the outer areas of metro Atlanta back towards the heart of the city. The survey tool we had designed was working well from all reports. In fact, on the price comparisons between dollar stores and other options in the market, we all felt we already had a repetitive pattern, so we dropped those questions to concentrate more on getting to at least 100 stores – if not more. Workers were responding and also very interested in the results, which was encouraging.
We don’t know how the chips will fall over the coming months, but one thing is already certain: this is a deep dive, based on our observations in the stores and the Atlanta workers collective input, whatever the conclusions they will be impossible for the companies to ignore and spin as simply the complaints of disgruntled former employees.