WINSTED, Conn. — The afternoon shift workers at Dollar General No. 18060 had listened with growing panic as an executive accused their store manager of stealing. They could hear the yelling and threats in the back office, a scene that had shaken all of them — especially Shellie Parsons.
In a life marked by poverty, addiction and physical abuse, Parsons, 37, had come to see her store — a beige prefabricated building on the outskirts of town — as her haven, a $15.75-an-hour pathway to a better life. She was desperately afraid of losing it.
And so, after a brief discussion with a few trusted co-workers, she headed to a nearby Stop & Shop grocery store where years earlier she recalled seeing a picket line, walked back to the deli counter and asked one of the butchers, whom she had never met, whether he had a phone number for someone at their union. She dialed from the parking lot.
“Why does it got to be me?” she recalled thinking as the phone rang. She feared that talking to a union organizer could get her fired, even as she worried that doing nothing would leave her and her colleagues vulnerable to the whims of upper management.
All over the country, workers who had labored through a global pandemic for low pay and meager benefits were concluding that they deserved better from their bosses. Wages were rising and a wave of strikes was sweeping across the country, hitting iconic American brands such as Kellogg’s and John Deere. And now Parsons’s phone call was setting off one of the most lopsided battles of the ongoing low-wage-worker revolt.
On one side: six Dollar General employees, most of whom were making the minimum wage or just slightly above it. The group included a community college student, a struggling musician who had recently moved back home and two single moms, one of whom was Parsons. On the other: a company with yearly revenue approaching $34 billion, more than 157,000 employees and 17,683 stores, not one of which was unionized.
Four days after her Sept. 17 phone call, Parsons and a few of her co-workers met with the union organizer. To prepare, she had written out what they all hoped to gain, in a letter that went through three drafts and that Parsons had finished in the front seat of her car.
“We all want to make sure we can make a living and not worry we will get fired for false accusations or made up things,” she wrote. “Take our words serious, don’t just brush them off. … We are your employees, not strangers.”
The workers wanted more job security. They wanted a process to ensure that their complaints weren’t ignored. They wanted to know that their labor was valued and that they were respected.
Parsons and three of her co-workers signed it and handed it over to the organizer with Local 371 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Then they signed union cards, authorizing an election scheduled for Oct. 22 — exactly one month away. To prevail, all the signees — or four of the store’s six workers — would have to vote for the union.
Parsons and her fellow workers weren’t just trying to unionize; they were challenging a core aspect of the business model that has fueled Dollar General’s boom over the past decade.
“We believe our union free status is one reason we continue to grow and provide employment while many unionized companies have declined,” the company wrote in third paragraph of its 2015 employee handbook.
Dollar General had carved out a niche that allowed it to thrive in communities where people were struggling to put food on the table and pay their bills, and there were more and more of these places popping up throughout the country ever year.
To serve these communities, Dollar General has concentrated on needs, not wants. Each store typically consists of about 7,400 square feet of cramped, dimly lit aisles focusing on staples such as milk, eggs and diapers as well as products such as pain relievers, frying pans and motor oil. They are stocked in small sizes instead of bulk to keep prices low and profit margins high. Staffing is just as spare — typically six employees and a manager, who often works six or seven days a week.
The approach had proved so successful that by 2020 there were more dollar stores — a category that includes Dollar Tree and Family Dollar — in the United States than all the Walmart, Starbucks and McDonald’s locations combined. Of these, Dollar General was the biggest of them all.
Before the vote at Parsons’s store, the last serious effort to unionize a Dollar General came in December 2017 when workers in Auxvasse, Mo., sought to become the first store in company history to join the UFCW.
Dollar General moved swiftly to quell the Auxvasse uprising. In the weeks before the vote, company executives flew into town on a private jet and the vice president for human resources embedded herself in the store, working alongside employees cleaning windows, stocking shelves and making the case for rejecting the union, according to workers and court documents.
The employees voted 4 to 2 to organize, an outcome Dollar General spent the next 28 months fighting in the courts on the grounds that the vote was flawed. In the middle of its legal battle, the company fired the employee who initially called the union, for using a curse word in a private meeting with his district manager.
As part of a settlement approved by the National Labor Relations Board, Dollar General agreed to compensate the fired worker. The company was also required to post a notice in the Auxvasse store’s break room acknowledging the monetary settlement and its workers’ right to organize.
“WE WILL NOT fire you because of your union membership or support,” the notice read.
Instead, the company took a more extreme step: It closed the store early last year, only weeks after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ordered Dollar General to recognize and bargain with the union. Alan Bloom, 70, a cashier, said some of the store’s employees, including its manager, negotiated transfers. Bloom decided to retire.
He had voted for the union, but now that the store was closing, he wished he hadn’t. “For a while it felt revolutionary, like we were going to change things,” he said. “But that didn’t happen. The store just closed.”
Dollar General was the town’s only national chain, and the only place — besides a gas station convenience store — that sold frozen food, snacks and canned goods. “It’s left a hole in our town,” said Ashley Steinbeck, Auxvasse’s mayor. “It was such a convenience for everyone, especially for elderly folks who can’t get around really well.”
In a statement, Dollar General said the decision to close the store, just weeks after it was ordered to negotiate with the union, was based on an “assessment of the store’s future profitability.”
David Cook, the president of UFCW Local 655 in Missouri, suggested a different motive. “It’s a control issue,” he said. “I don’t think anybody out there recognizes the value an employer like Dollar General puts on having an at-will workforce. ‘At will’ means I can fire you for any reason I want as long as it’s not color, religion or ethnicity. It’s that ultimate power of intimidation. … You can’t put a value on that if you’re an employer — especially one the size of Dollar General.”
Parsons didn’t know any of this history when she placed her call to the union in September. She was just worried about losing a job that offered a sense of stability and predictability in a life that had often felt on the brink of collapse.
She had spent her teenage years in foster care, battled a heroin addiction and served a year in prison, but by the time she started at Dollar General in 2019, she was beginning to pull her life together. Other than a brief relapse and terrifying overdose in early 2019, she had been drug-free for most of the past 12 years. She was trying to end an abusive relationship, and her boss and colleagues had offered support, noticing the bruises on her body and encouraging her to leave her partner.
Aside from Bella, her 8-year-old daughter, Parsons’s store had become the most important thing in her life, a place where she felt successful, earning pay raises and a promotion to assistant manager.
“I don’t have any family. I have no one,” she said. “And when I started working for Dollar General, I got away from my lifelong abuser and I survived, and I got a family and a future.”
Parsons didn’t expect better pay or benefits from unionizing. She just wanted to hold on to what she had.
In the days after she and her co-workers signed union cards, the company hired five anti-union consultants, each of whom was paid $2,700 a day, according to documents filed with the Labor Department. It dispatched three out-of-state executives to the store who shadowed the employees for the month, working alongside them. Sometimes the executives talked baseball, hunting or music with the store employees.
Other times, they warned them about the union, which they said would make them pay costly dues and ruin their relationship with their store manager, whom they liked and admired.
Mostly, the executives seemed to be spying on them, the employees said. About a week after they arrived at the store, Jake Serafini, 31, was restocking an aisle with one of his co-workers, he recalled. “I would never be able to do this job for $7.25 an hour,” he said, thinking of the minimum wage in North Carolina, where he had lived before returning home to Winsted.
Seconds later, Serafini said, one of the corporate executives emerged from a nearby aisle. “The minimum wage in Connecticut is $13 an hour,” he said.
Serafini, a part-time musician, agreed but noted that it was still a “little low” given the state’s high cost of living. He didn’t think much about the incident until the same executive spotted him a few days later stacking pizzas in a freezer that was badly overstocked.
“It looks there are sparks coming out of your ears,” the executive said.
“Look at this f---ing bullsh--,” Serafini replied, pointing to the mess. The executive offered to show him how to fix the oversupply problem, and Serafini said he apologized for cursing.
After his shift, Serafini said, two of his co-workers approached as he was walking to his car and told him they had been ordered to sign statements saying they had heard him curse. Serafini’s store manager called that evening and fired him. In his five months with the company, Serafini hadn’t missed a shift and had no disciplinary write-ups.
“My heart is breaking,” Serafini recalled his boss saying. “I’m doing everything I can on my end. We’re going to get you back.”
The dismissal shook some of Serafini’s co-workers, who were convinced that he was fired because he was pro-union, or possibly because the Dollar General executives believed he had instigated the union drive. It incensed Parsons, who felt responsible. Serafini had been filling in for her on the day he was fired.
At the union’s request, Parsons did interviews with CNN, HuffPost and the Hartford Courant. She recorded a video for More Perfect Union, a labor advocacy group, in which she talked about Serafini’s dismissal. “The only people that can save us is a union,” she said on the video.
Six days before the vote, Parsons believed that three out of six employees, including Serafini, who despite his dismissal was allowed to vote, were pro-union. One was wavering, a worker named Jen whose vote was crucial. The woman did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post for this story. Parsons said that a Dollar General executive had warned Jen about the closing of the Auxvasse store and suggested that the same thing could happen in Connecticut.
“I need you to call Jen and talk to her,” Parsons texted the UFCW organizer, Jessica Petronella. “They are getting to her. We have to act Very Quickly or we are going to lose her.”
Three days before the vote, Parsons, Jen and Petronella met in a supermarket parking lot a short drive down the highway from the Dollar General. It was a spot where they hoped that the company’s executives and consultants, who now outnumbered the workers, wouldn’t see them.
Petronella said she asked Jen to draft a statement describing what she considered to be the company’s threat to close the store, along with an account of Serafini’s firing. Jen wrote that the executive told her to “look into the dollar general store that had been closed” and shared that Serafini’s firing may have been related to corporate’s belief that he had been the first to call the union.
Dollar General, in response to questions from The Post, said that no threats were made to close the Connecticut store and denied that Serafini was “treated unlawfully.”
Petronella intended to give Jen’s statement to the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees union elections to ensure they are fair. She also saw the letter as a positive sign that Jen still supported the union.
On election day, the NLRB set up a small white tent in the parking lot of the Dollar General. Parsons, who agreed to serve as an observer for the union, arrived at 8:30 a.m. and cast her ballot. A worker representing the company occupied a second table. For the next two hours, Parsons sat, watched and nervously waited as her co-workers cycled through.
Dollar General was challenging Serafini’s ballot, but he was still allowed to vote. “It’s a great day for democracy,” he told Parsons as he entered the tent.
“Absolutely!” Parsons replied.
A second co-worker who backed the union grinned at Parsons as he dropped his ballot in the cardboard box. A good sign. There were two workers, both part-timers, who hadn’t supported the union. Parsons assumed they both voted no.
She was most worried about Jen, who stood over her ballot for several seconds, shaking her head as if she was thinking, Parsons said. Parsons tried to catch her eye, but Jen hurried past her.
At 11:05 a.m., an NLRB representative counted the votes. To prevail, Dollar General needed at least three of the six workers to vote against the union. The first two votes were both no. Then there was a yes, followed by a brief pause as the NLRB representative unfolded the next ballot. Parsons breathed in through her light blue surgical mask.
“No,” the NLRB official read.
At first, Parsons didn’t believe it. She walked out of the tent and into the sunlight, lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. One of her co-workers called Serafini to let him know the outcome.
“I hate to be the one to tell you,” he began.
“You’re kidding,” Serafini replied. He had assumed that the union would win and that he would be back to work in a week or two. Now he felt alone.
Parsons and Petronella drove to a nearby McDonald’s to figure out what had happened and talk about their next steps. Tears streamed down Parsons’s face. She believed that the election hadn’t been fair, that Dollar General had “polluted” her colleagues’ minds with falsehoods and fear.
“Obviously, Jen voted no,” Petronella said.
Over the course of her life, Parsons had grown accustomed to feeling abandoned — by her parents, the foster-care system, the police and the courts. Now she wanted the union to stand with her, appeal the vote to the NLRB and keep fighting.
“What do we do now?” she asked Petronella.
For Petronella and the union, the answer was to move on to other battles. She could have sought an order that would have forced Dollar General to bargain with the union. “You have to hire lawyers, and it ends up costing a lot,” Petronella said. For a company like Dollar General the expense was nothing. But the union’s resources were limited.
Petronella decided that it would be faster and cheaper to wait 12 months and petition for another union vote, if Parsons and her co-workers were still interested. Her last piece of unfinished business from the Dollar General organizing effort was Serafini, who with the help of the union and a Labor Department lawyer was negotiating a wrongful-dismissal settlement with Dollar General.
Petronella wanted Dollar General to have to acknowledge publicly its agreement with Serafini, just as it had done in Missouri.
Serafini’s immediate goal was to pay some bills and move on with his life, perhaps becoming a social worker. His dismissal, he said, had revealed what Dollar General really thought of its workers. “You have people go above and beyond for a minimum-wage job and then get tossed because a union might mean it costs a little more to run the store. It’s all about greed,” he said. “It just feels gross.”
For Parsons there was only one option after the union organizing effort failed: A few weeks after the election, her alarm clock woke her at 5:15 a.m., giving her just enough time to stop by the methadone clinic for her daily dose before heading off to work.
The Dollar General executives had returned home, and the store had settled back into its old rhythms. Parsons helped unload a “humongous truck” that arrived that morning and fell off a ladder while trying to retrieve a box of adult diapers from a storage shelf for an elderly customer. In the afternoon, she headed off to a second job cleaning houses. She lugged bags of supplies and a scuffed yellow vacuum up the driveway of a small, brick ranch house, her back still throbbing from her fall. After only a few minutes of work, her forehead glistened with sweat.
Parsons was more than $5,000 behind on her electricity bill but was determined to use the money from her housekeeping jobs to pay the lawyer who was helping her fight for custody of her daughter. She saw Bella three times a week — visits that began with tense handoffs that Parsons knew took the heaviest toll on Bella.
After police charged Parsons’s ex with “threatening” behavior and “breach of peace,” the courts granted Parsons a restraining order and mandated that she and her former partner exchange Bella in a well-lit, public spot. For now, it was the Big Y supermarket. Inside the store, the two parents stood about 10 yards apart recording each other with their phones as their 8-year-old daughter ran with her head down from her father to her mother.
“Today Mommy doesn’t have too much money,” Parsons said as she hurriedly outlined some options for their three-hour visit. Bella chose a $5.75 matinee of the new Marvel movie, and Parsons began firing questions at her.
“Have you taken a shower lately?”
“What’s Daddy feeding you?”
“You’re still coughing, baby. Are you taking your medicine?”
Three-quarters of the way through the movie, Bella started to worry that they were going to be late for the court-mandated, 8 p.m. drop-off with her dad. So they left early, giving Parsons just enough time for a quick cigarette break before they sped through the Wendy’s drive-through. Her feet were sore. Her back still ached. Her gas gauge hovered just above empty. Parsons lit a cigarette in the parking lot. A few kernels of movie theater popcorn, tossed by a giggling Bella, struck her on the cheek.
Back at the Big Y, they repeated the recorded drop-off in reverse. This was the worst part of Parsons’s day, the time she felt most alone. “I fight addiction. I fight for my job. I fight for my kid. I fight for my survival,” she said. “Every single way I turn, I have to fight.”
One thing she could no longer afford to fight was Dollar General, and so these days she was focused relentlessly on the company’s positives. Dollar General had dismissed the district manager who accused her boss of stealing — falsely, employees said — and replaced him with a new person who seemed fair. The new district manager had recently promised to start reimbursing store employees for their mileage when they had to drive to the bank to drop off the day’s deposits. It wasn’t yet clear whether they would be reimbursed thousands of dollars for earlier unpaid trips.
“After the election, I started to find out the truth about Dollar General,” Parsons said. “It is not what we thought. If they knew what was going on they would have fixed it earlier. Really it was just a couple of bad people. Everyone has their flaws, but Dollar General is great people.”
Parsons didn’t regret calling the union. Without the organizing effort, she believed the problems at her store would never have been addressed. “It helped 100 percent,” she said. But she also wasn’t upset that the unionizing push had failed. “If we won, honestly I don’t know anymore,” she continued. “I don’t know if it’d be different. Everything is just confusing.”
Two weeks before Thanksgiving, Parsons received another bit of good news: Someone had posted on Parsons’s employee group text chat that the store would be closed on the holiday, a change from previous years when it had been open for extended hours. “The union isn’t involved, and they are still doing it,” she said.
But it turned out that the company wasn’t actually doing it. The store was open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day just as it had been the previous year, and Parsons was scheduled to work.
She didn’t let it bother her. She needed the money. She worked an 11-hour shift and then rushed to the Big Y, where Bella was waiting.
Abha Bhattarai and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.