When a group of workers at a Dollar General store in Auxvasse, Missouri, voted to unionize in early December, employees at nearby stores wanted to know whether the move would affect them. Margeorie Nation, the manager at a Dollar General in Glasgow, another Missouri town, raised her concerns in a conversation with other store managers. She also posted about it on a private social media account.
Shortly thereafter, she lost her job.
“I’ve never been written up. I’ve never been reprimanded. Nothing,” Nation told The Intercept. In fact, she said, her store was given a company award for sales and customer satisfaction last year.
The discount store chain’s employee handbook makes clear the company’s philosophy of remaining union-free. “Our union free status is one reason we continue to grow and provide employment while many unionized companies have declined,” it states.
Missouri lies at the heart of a national debate about unionizing. This year, it became the 28th state to enact a right-to-work law that says workers cannot be forced to join a union as a condition of employment. Ten days before the law was to come into force, labor unions, which oppose the law, gathered 300,000 signatures to put the issue directly to voters in the 2018 election.
Dollar General is a hallmark of the low-wage economy, as its low-cost goods often provide a lifeline to communities that can’t afford to shop at big retailers. But along with low-cost goods often come low wages for employees. As HuffPost’s Dave Jamieson reported in 2013, various dollar store chains like Dollar General have worked hard to keep employee compensation low through tactics like classifying certain employees as managers to avoid paying them overtime.
When the workers in Auxvasse voted 2-to-1 to unionize, their store became the first Dollar General in the country to take that step. They did it with the help of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655. The local, based in a suburb of St. Louis, typically organizes grocery store workers and other retailers. Around 90 percent of its members in the area work at three major grocery chains, but it also has members in businesses ranging from barbers to a local funeral home. It is the largest private-sector union local in the state.
Collin Reischman, a spokesperson for the union, told The Intercept that just about two months passed between when the workers reached out to the local and when they voted to unionize. One issue the workers were concerned with, he said, was managers exhibiting favoritism when assigning workers’ schedules.
“In a job like this, the key to being able to work enough to support yourself is really getting enough hours, you know, and also getting the right hours so you’re also able to see your family once in a while,” Reischmann explained. “There’s always some degree of favoritism in the workplace, right? Our concern is always the unfair favoritism. If you’re the best worker who does the best job, you should get the best hours, that’s just fairness. … That’s one of the things we can do for you is make sure that managers can’t just pick winners and losers, they have to have a system [for determining hours].”
Nation, however, was not trying to organize a union when the company abruptly fired her in mid-December.
She was on a regularly scheduled conference call with other store managers in her district on December 9. She decided to ask about the union at the Auxvasse store. “I had employees asking me, as well as other store managers asking questions, ‘How does this affect us?’ If they’re getting better pay or better hours or whatever, how does that affect us? If they unionize and get this, why don’t we?” she told The Intercept. The higher-ups reiterated the company’s longstanding opposition to unionization.
“I was told to contact my district manager,” she said.
She texted her district manager and was told that the regional director would be calling her later that day. On December 11, two regional managers visited her store unannounced.
“No notice that they were coming. No nothing. I was on a register, I was by myself, I was checking out customers,” Nation said. “They came in the store, they never introduced themselves or nothing. They walked around the store and then came around to where I was at while I was checking out customers and basically asked, ‘Why were your employees asking these questions?’”
The next day, she was browsing the Facebook page “Dollar General Mayhem,” which often posts links critical of the company. She shared one of its posts on that day linking to a local news story about the Auxvasse union. She added a comment asking her family members what they thought.
One day later, the regional director and a human resources employee from Dollar General arrived at her store and told her she was terminated for violating company social media policy. According to the employee handbook, Dollar General staff are prohibited from acting as official representatives of the company or sharing information that is “confidential or proprietary to Dollar General.”
Nation said she had asked for specifics and was not given an answer. Later, after texting with her regional manager, she was told she had shared “confidential company information,” but was never told exactly what that information was.
The Intercept called the regional manager and emailed Dollar General multiple times seeking comment; the company did not respond to a detailed list of questions.
Not only does Nation not know how exactly she violated company policy, but she’s also confused about how her employer knew that she shared an article about the Auxvasse store’s unionizing; Her Facebook page is set to private.
Dollar General stands to benefit from rising inequality in America, as CEO Todd Vasos noted at a Goldman Sachs retailing conference in September. “As middle class continues to go away, unfortunately, to the lower end of the economic scale versus the higher end,” he said, the economy will create more of the chain’s “core customer.”
“I think there’s going to be more and more opportunities for us to get in and build more stores,” Vasos added.
In an early December earnings call, Vasos was asked about how the company’s core customer would be impacted by minimum wage increases in some states. “We feel good about where the consumer is right now,” he said. “But as I always say, we work under the premise that she is always tight because her expenses continue to rise on the other side of expense — excuse me, of her income rising.”
Dollar General in December asked for a recount of the Auxvasse union vote, claiming that two of the four employees who voted in favor said they had changed their minds. On January 3, the National Labor Relations Board held a hearing on the matter, but it has not yet decided whether it will grant a new vote.
For her part, Nation has hired a lawyer and plans to challenge her termination.