Two workers at an Irmo, South Carolina, Dollar General store went on strike for two days beginning Jan. 17, citing mold, unpaid wages, and “dangerous understaffing.”
The two workers, who comprise 50% of the employees at their store, say the collective action was necessary after enduring months of hazardous working conditions. Together with the support of the newly formed Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), both employees have filed safety complaints with the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a wage theft complaint with the state’s Office of Wages and Child Labor, and an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board. While these cases are ongoing, the workers say conditions have improved slightly since the strike, though Dollar General has not yet reimbursed their stolen wages.
One of the striking workers, TyBrianna Shaw, has been an employee at the Dollar General store in Irmo for three years. Currently, she is an assistant manager making $15.50 an hour and working 20 hours a week. She also works a second job in order “to survive,” she said, because her paycheck from Dollar General is not enough to live off of.
Shaw said the Irmo store is rife with health hazards that are dangerous for workers and customers, including mold, animal droppings, extreme heat in the summer, and improperly stored chemicals that leak and spill. Employees are not trained on how to properly clean these chemicals, Shaw said, and there is also a lack of safety equipment in the store, along with blocked fire exits. Due to understaffing, each day Shaw and her employees are also responsible for dangerous physical labor, such as moving and unloading aisle-blocking, 10-feet-high rolling containers of stacked merchandise. At the end of her shift, often after 10 p.m., Shaw leaves in pitch darkness because the Dollar General does not have any external lights.
Shaw has filed complaints with her manager, district manager, regional manager, and even the human resources department—to no avail. According to Shaw, the company has not responded to any of her formal complaints.
Prism also reached out to Dollar General for comment, but they did not respond.
“It’s just a repeated cycle,” Shaw said during a phone call on the first day of their strike. “We just really want change.”
Shaw has been with the USSW for about five months. The experience has helped her realize that she can hold her company accountable for labor violations.
“We can stay united,” said Shaw. “This is our right to organize and unionize.”
Shaw says she just wants to be able to live comfortably without having to constantly worry about her survival. She pays $800 a month in rent, but between her unstable work hours and inflation, she doesn’t always know if she’ll have enough to make ends meet.
“It’s very important to organize,” Shaw said in a press release announcing the strike. “We don’t have a lot of labor unions around here. If no one stands up, it’ll be an endless cycle. I’m going on strike to break the cycle and fight for what we need: safety and respect from Dollar General.”
The other striking worker, Miranda Chavez, has worked at the Irmo Dollar General for four months, making $11 an hour. Within a few weeks, she was promoted, and management promised her a 75-cent raise, but after three months, Chavez has yet to see the difference in her paycheck.
“I’ve never been paid so little, been treated this badly by management, or been lied to about my paycheck. I couldn’t believe that a billion-dollar company can pay their employees so little,” Chavez said in a statement. “Our store is dangerously understaffed because Dollar General is thinking about their bottom line. It seems like they would rather pay OSHA fines than hire enough staff to run the store safely and effectively.”
Chavez has addressed her manager, district manager, and human resources, though none have made an effort to correct the issue.
“That is not a livable wage whatsoever,” Chavez said. “I can’t even afford to live on my own in the same town that I work in.”
Chavez and Shaw launched their two-day strike on Jan. 17 by walking off the job and holding a community-supported rally in front of their store. They were joined by other USSW workers—including fast food, retail, and care workers in the region—all of whom organized in hopes of shifting the power imbalance between workers and corporations. They also want to transform their jobs into “good union jobs.”
“When it comes to corporations, none of their departments look out for the workers,” Chavez said. “They work out for the corporation. When you deal with HR, they’re going to do what’s in the best interest of the company itself and not the worker. The union is the only way that we have anyone to stand up for us or stand with us to help correct these problems because they’re looking out for us. And without them, we would have no recourse.”
Chavez alleges that when organizers from the USSW first arrived, the Dollar General store manager told her and Shaw that if they signed up for the union or provided any personal information to the organizer, they would be terminated on the spot. This threat and union-busting tactic was the topic of the unfair labor practice charge they later filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
The Dollar General workers say they have received support from community members and more respect from management. And, in line with one of their demands, they are not working alone in the store during shifts. However, until all their demands are met, both employees say they will continue to organize—and that another strike is possible.