The low-cost retailer Dollar General has the highest number of store locations in America, with over 17,600 stores in 46 states, and its golden and black logo has become ubiquitous across the country.
The company’s rapid footprint is continuing to grow, as a staggering nearly one out of every three retail stores opening in America this year is now a Dollar General. All that business generates dizzying revenue too: the company reported $33.7bn in sales last fiscal year.
Currently, none of the thousands of Dollar General retail stores are unionized, as the company is aggressively opposed to unions with a company philosophy of remaining “union free”. Yet a handful of workers at a Dollar General store in Barkhamsted, Connecticut, are pushing to change that, with a union election scheduled for 22 October to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW).
Five workers at the store are currently eligible to vote in the election, as a sixth employee was abruptly fired just a day before a 9 October cut-off to be eligible. They requested to remain anonymous for fear of risking other job prospects.
The worker said they were covering a shift on 8 October when they were not originally scheduled. While they were stocking refrigerated products, they were confronted by one of the corporate-level managers – who has descended on the store since the union election petition was filed in late September– who criticized the company’s inventory system that often delivered products to the store they had no room to stock.
“After that I just continued with my day-to-day activities. About an hour to two hours after my shift, I had been notified by my manager that all of his bosses had told him to terminate me,” said the worker. “It’s no secret that I was more likely than not a yes voter for the union, and he basically just kind of took advantage of me in a vulnerable moment.”
The worker affirmed in the five months working at the Dollar General that he had no write-ups, was never late and was a model employee. The union has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board over the firing and will be challenging for his union election ballot to be counted in the vote.
“I was terminated with absolutely no warning – [and] under false pretenses,” added the worker. “People are fed up with working for the company. They’re worth nearly $50bn and our infrastructure is terrible, our corporate management is terrible. Our store teams become more of a family than anything because we’re really all we have, so that’s why we felt like we needed to take these steps to get a union.”
Dollar General has a record of retaliating against employees for organizing or speaking out.
In May last year, a market planning analyst at Dollar General’s corporate headquarters in Tennessee was terminated after sending emails to his superiors with concerns about the poor Covid response from the company.
In December 2017, a Dollar General store voted four to two to unionize, the first store to do so. Dollar General disputed the election results, but lost their appeals in court. Soon after the court decision that ruled Dollar General must recognize the union at the store, the company announced plans to close the store, claiming future profitability concerns. In 2018, Dollar General also fired a manager at a separate store in Missouri for asking corporate managers about how the union result would affect other stores.
The workers in Connecticut said the union organizing drive at their store was prompted by a verbal altercation in Septemberthat two district managers had with their store manager, where employees and customers could overhear screaming.
“That day was the day that we all got scared to lose our jobs. If they can go accusing the store manager for something that he didn’t do, they can do the same thing to us,” said a current employee at the Barkhamsted store who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “We need to protect ourselves. We need to also have our voices heard, so we decided to join the union and fight for our rights.”
Since the union organizing drive went public, Dollar General has sent several corporate managers and union avoidance consultants to dissuade workers from voting for the union, through one-on-one meetings and constant intimidation.
“They brought in union-busters to try to pick us off one by one. We’re not letting that happen,” the worker added. “I try all day just to stay away from them, which is very hard because they’re always following you, distracting you, pulling you out of the store trying to talk to you. It’s so stressful. I’ve been having so much anxiety and stress I have to talk to a therapist.”
The workers outlined several reforms they are pushing for through their effort to unionize, including improving low wages, as workers are paid the Connecticut state minimum wage of $13 an hour, or a fraction above, better benefits, holiday pay, job security, better treatment from corporate, and they are calling on their fired co-worker to be reinstated.
In 2020, Dollar General reported a profit of over $2.6bn, a 55% increase from 2019, driven by increased demand during the pandemic. The company spent $2.5bn on stock buybacks during 2020, and authorized an additional $2bn in stock. Dollar General’s chief executive, Todd Vasos, received a 37% increase in total compensation during 2020, to more than $16m.
According to Payscale, Dollar General employees make an average base pay of $10.04 an hour.
Jessica Petronella, an organizer with UFCW local 371, said the pandemic has galvanized union organizing around the US, especially among essential workers in industries such as retail, where workers have been forced to take on greater workloads and expectations by employers, without that being reflected in their pay.
“We lost two members to Covid during the pandemic while working, and we’ve had tons of members catch Covid. We’ve had members lose relatives,” said Petronella. “Covid has been challenging, but at the same time, it’s made the public realize how essential workers are at stores like Dollar General and grocery stores where people need to buy their food and supplies.”
A spokesperson for Dollar General said in an email the company does not comment specifically on pending legal or personnel matters, but disagreed with the claim from the former employee and allegations of retaliation or harassment.
In regards to the union drive, the spokesperson said: “At Dollar General, we believe our commitment to open, direct communication affords employees the best opportunity to be heard, learn, and grow their careers.
“In keeping with our commitment, we have worked to ensure our employees are provided accurate, factual information regarding unions, including the UFCW and local 371, as well as our perspective on why a union is not in their best interests.”