From Dollar General and Dollar Tree to Family Dollar, dollar stores are spreading rapidly throughout Louisiana and across the country, often strategically located in low-income communities and “food deserts.” But dollar store workers notoriously have to endure low pay, understaffing, and hazardous working conditions; some workers report frequently working alone in stores and having their air conditioning controlled from corporate headquarters in another state. That’s why Step Up Louisiana, “a community based organization committed to building power to win education and economic justice for all,” is organizing employees, customers, and community members to fight for safer stores and better pay and working conditions for dollar store workers. In this episode, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with Kenya Slaughter, who has been an organizer and frontline worker at Dollar General for a number of years, and Curtis Williams, a dollar store customer who has gotten involved in Step Up Louisiana’s campaign.

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Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemusicarchive.org)

  • Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song”

Pre-Production/Studio: Maximillian Alvarez
Post-Production: Jules Taylor


TRANSCRIPT

Maximillian Alvarez:  All right. Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by listeners and supporters like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network. So if you’re hungry for more worker and labor focused shows like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out the other great shows in our network. And please, please, please support the work that we’re doing here at Working People so that we can keep growing and keep bringing you more important conversations. And you can do that by leaving us a positive review on Apple Podcasts, which really helps us. It helps new listeners find our show. And of course you can share these episodes on your social media and with your coworkers, friends, and family members.

And the single best thing, as always, that you can do to support our work is become a paid monthly subscriber on Patreon for just five bucks a month. Subscribe for 10 bucks a month, and you’ll also get a print subscription to the amazing In These Times magazine. Just head on over to patreon.com/workingpeople. That’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N.com/working people. Hit the subscribe button, and you will immediately get access to all of the awesome bonus episodes that we’ve recorded and published over the years for our amazing subscribers. And we’ve posted some real bangers lately over on the Patreon feed, and we’ve got lots more coming.

We really, really want to be able to expand our ability to do more worker interviews. We want to get merchandise. We want to do more live events like fundraisers for workers on strike, workers who have been fired for organizing, and all of that important stuff. But Jules has a job. I have a job. We do all this on nights and weekends when we can. And we do need more help if we can get it, but we can’t get that help unless we are able to bring in more money through Patreon subscriptions.

So we are posting more awesome bonus episodes and more bonus content for subscribers over on the Patreon feed. We’re trying to up that to at least three bonus episodes a month. And that includes some recent killer bonus episodes like the one that we did with Mansa Musa, who was incarcerated for nearly 50 years. And Mansa and I had an incredible conversation about how the labor movement and the movement to dismantle the prison-industrial complex are fundamentally intertwined.

And we also just posted a big, really incredible and sprawling conversation with me, Jules, and our boy David Parsons from The Nostalgia Trap where we talk about the new George Carlin documentary, comedy, America, death, optimism, and the general state of the world. So that’s kind of a new thing that we’re doing. Once a month, we’re posting a kind of bonus episode that isn’t necessarily focused on worker struggles, but that still intertwines with a lot of the topics that we discuss on the show. So I hope you guys like that. And you definitely don’t want to miss out on those bonus episodes, or the other great ones that we’ve got coming your way. So head on over to Patreon, become a subscriber, and help us keep growing.

My name is Maximillian Alvarez. And I know I say this all the time, but I’m actually going to keep this intro relatively short, and we’re going to get right into the good stuff today. And I mean, listen, it’s not like I don’t want to do another long rambling introduction. And I know you guys are just jonesing for it. But I’m actually recording this intro from my hotel room in Downtown Chicago. That’s right, baby. I drove my ass all the way from Baltimore and coasted into town on fumes at like 3:30 in the morning last night. So I’m kind of dead inside. But I made it, and I couldn’t be more excited to participate in my first ever Labor Notes conference this weekend.

If you are listening to this and you’re also coming to Labor Notes, then hit me up on Twitter or just come up and say hi if you see me over the course of the weekend. I’ll be hosting two panels, which you can find in the program. And you should obviously come to both of them. And I will also be participating in the new books event, which you should also obviously come to so that you can buy my new book. I will have lots of updates on the conference for you guys in next week’s episode. And I’ll be walking around the conference with my recorder trying to get as many interviews with folks as I can over the course of the weekend. So you guys definitely will get to hear from some of the great workers and organizers who are attending the conference.

But I know that there’s one thing that all of our listeners are dying to know. And I am happy to report that our siblings Tevita Uhatafe from the Transport Workers Union and Haeden and Braxton Wright from the United Mine Workers of America are indeed coming to Labor Notes. So we did it. Mission accomplished, gang. And I make this promise to all of you that I will find Tevita, Haeden, and Braxton, and I will force them to have a podcast conversation with me at some point this weekend.

All right. Well, like I said, I’ll have more updates for you guys very soon from Labor Notes, and I’ll be posting about it online if you are curious. But for now, let’s jump right into today’s episode, which is a special compilation of two interviews that I got to do about the fight for dignity, justice, fairness, and better treatment, protections, and wages for dollar store workers in Louisiana and around the country.

I was really fortunate to connect with the good folks at Step Up Louisiana after I saw the organizing that they were doing to support workers at Dollar Trees, Family Dollar stores, and Dollar General stores. And as it says on their website, “Step Up Louisiana, along with our sister organization Step Up for Action, is a community based organization committed to building power to win education and economic justice for all. We work with multiracial and intergenerational Louisianans to ‘Step Up’ by campaigning, organizing from a racial justice perspective, and holding public officials accountable. We organize with parents, workers, students, and community members to disrupt systemic oppression in our schools and workplaces through voter education, advocacy, and action.” Hell yeah.

And if you check out their website, which I encourage you all to do, you’ll see that Step Up is engaged in so many important struggles. But for obvious reasons, their campaign around dollar store workers really caught our eye. And it was a real honor for me to get to chat to Kenya Slaughter, who has worked at Dollar General for a number of years, and is an incredible voice for dollar store workers. And I also got to talk to Curtis Williams, who spoke to me about his own involvement with Step Up Louisiana, and about why he is invested in this fight as a dollar store customer.

So I think we get a really interesting pairing of interviews here. And I hope that you guys dig it, because I thought this was a really, really important episode to put together. And side note, at a couple points in my interview with Curtis, I accidentally refer to Step Up Louisiana as Stand Up Louisiana. That was just me being a dumbass so please disregard that. But yeah, you guys should definitely check out the links in the show notes. Check out the great work that Kenya, Curtis, and everyone at Step Up Louisiana are doing, and join the fight however you can. This is their story.

Kenya Slaughter:  Hello, hello. I am Kenya Slaughter. I am an activist, an autism mom, and a Dollar General employee.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Hell yeah. Well Kenya, thank you so much for joining us today on the show. It’s a real honor to get a chance to chat with you. And honestly, I feel like a lot of our listeners are probably familiar with your name. Because as you said, you’re an activist, you’re a Dollar General employee. You’ve been out there speaking up and standing up for what’s right. And we’re just in awe of what you and everyone at Step Up is doing, and all of the dollar store workers who are standing up with you to demand what they deserve.

And in fact, I think where folks will probably remember your name from is you had this great viral New York Times piece in April of 2020. So for listeners, just put yourself back in the state that we were all in in April of 2020 when COVID was really settling in and the nightmare was really beginning in earnest. And at that time, Kenya wrote a really powerful op-ed for The New York Times called “I Never Planned to be a Frontline Worker at Dollar General.” And I’m going to read just a little bit of the opening here, and then I’m going to toss things over to Kenya to pick up from when this was published and to talk us through how things went over the past two years.

But Kenya writes in this piece, “I’ve been working at Dollar General here for more than two years. My manager is wonderful, and I have a great relationship with my customers. But when I took this job I never planned to become a worker on the front line of a pandemic. I close the register many nights, so I know my store’s revenue has practically doubled since the coronavirus hit. But we workers haven’t gotten any extra money, even though we’re risking our health, and our families’ health, to keep the stores running.

“Louisiana’s governor is expected to lift parts of the stay-at-home order soon. I don’t think our state is ready for that and I know my coworkers aren’t. We often work alone because of bare-bone staffing. I’m a full-time worker and on a typical day, I work from 1:00 PM to 9:00 PM, and for the first three hours of my shift I’m by myself. When my relief shows up at 4:00, I often can’t take lunch right away because the line is around the corner. I often have to pause the checkout line to run outside and grab ice, or propane, or help a customer retrieve a product from one of the top shelves, then reopen the register.

“But now it’s a lot more dangerous to work alone. Retail workers have always faced high risk of workplace violence. Before I started my job here, one of my coworkers was robbed at gunpoint. I’m afraid we’ll become more of a target for robberies because everyone knows we don’t have any security, and people are getting desperate. The unemployment office is overwhelmed, so a lot of people haven’t gotten any relief yet.”

So I mean, it was really wild to read that now two years later, because I think it’s so easy for us to forget what it was really like in those early days of the pandemic. And so, Kenya, I wanted to toss things over to you and ask how things have been for you and for your fellow coworkers, basically, in the two years since you wrote that? Do you feel like your concerns were addressed? And could you give listeners a sense of what it’s been like working at Dollar General over these past two years?

Kenya Slaughter:  Dollar General can be very chaotic. I always say that, because you’re forced to wear so many hats. You don’t get to just do the position that you’re hired for, the position that you’re titled as. At the time that I did the op-ed, I was actually the ASM. Due to some tragic tragedy in my family at my home, I had to step down because, again, I’m an autism mom, and I can’t just leave my daughter anywhere. So I had to get the hours to accommodate me so that I could take care of my daughter and not have to leave her with anyone.

So Dollar General is still doing the same things. People are still working alone. The store is in a high volume, high crime area. They’re strategically placed. They’re always in food deserts, all throughout the States. It’s not just Louisiana, it’s all over. So we all face the same problems with the stores in the high crime areas. So there’s always the potential risk for someone to come in and cut up. And excuse me — And if we need to take this part out, we can — But we have everything from people coming in the store, actually using the restroom, like number two, in the store in the back stockroom. That just happened a couple of weeks ago. We got a guy on camera who not only goes into our back stockroom and does that, but then he leaves the stock room and commences stealing, and leaves the store with several items. Now, during this time there were two employees in the store, which is the norm. But one was stocking, and one was on the register with a line. So no one sees him because we’re trying to get so much done.

That’s one of my main concerns with Dollar General. If we could be a little bit better staffed, I’m not even going to stretch and say security. Security is a stretch. They would have to pay them, and payment seems to be an issue. But if you could just pay more employees, give us more hours so that we could have four people on the floor, three minimum, at all times, that way no one ever has to be on the register alone. They would always have backup. Someone could always be constantly stocking. And then the third person can float. They can help between backing up the registers and helping stock and helping customers on the floor.

No one should ever have to be alone. Being alone in a store is a hazard. I had my boss fall out this year. She literally passed out in the store and had to be taken from the ambulance. She had some health issues. And she was in the store alone because we don’t have the man hours to give people the shifts that are required to run the store smoothly. Quick math, Max. My store requires 91 hours to operate with just one person on the cash register from Sunday to Sunday. Okay? So that’s 91 hours just for somebody, anybody, during any shift, to be on the register. If we’re only allotted 135 hours, 140 hours, somebody’s going to come up short somewhere. Someone’s always going to be alone at some point in time. The bare minimum should be 180 hours. That way two people can be in the store at all times. You following me?

Maximillian Alvarez:  Oh, I follow. No, I mean especially when you add in all… I’ve been in that situation, not at a Dollar General, but opening on my own, or being the only one in the store at a given time, it’s terrifying and anxiety producing on its own because you literally don’t have anyone to call if something goes wrong. And so you’re just hoping nothing goes wrong. But then when you add onto that a pandemic, when you add onto that the fact that you are at a dollar store at a time when inflation is through the roof and people are hurting and probably heading to dollar stores to try to save money when they can. And I don’t know, it just feels kind of like, yeah, this perfect storm that no single person can ever be reasonably expected to manage on their own without any help. That just seems bonkers to me.

Kenya Slaughter:  Yeah. It’s far-fetched. But these corporate executives sit in these offices and they come up with this strategic plan that works just perfectly in this perfect world. It doesn’t work like that. It does not work like that. It doesn’t. I’ve had them try and tell me what I sell in a day. Excuse me. I work here. I’m running the register. I know exactly what I sell in a day. You can’t tell me I only sell this amount when I know for a fact, because I do this every day, that I sell this amount. And not even the numbers, not the financial aspect of it. The quantities, like the inventory part of it. So we’re supposed to be able to recover the full store in X amount of time. Which, the stores can be recovered. It can be done.

However, don’t tell me how much time it should take on each aisle to recover, because I should only be missing one item so all I have to do is pull one item forward. No, sir. That’s not how it works. People come in and eat Vienna sausages, and leave open cans all over the place. And there’s open soda bottles everywhere, and Gatorades, and different things where they’ll come and take a drink and leave it on the shelf. It’s all those variables that people don’t account for.

Keep in mind, the six foot distance was never respected. We weren’t allowed to really enforce it. Once the mask mandate was lifted, we weren’t even allowed to ask the people to wear their mask. Yet we have to wear our masks. You could not turn someone around for entering the store without a mask. That was not a part of SOP, standard operating procedures, that they give us to go by.

So just different things with Dollar General. They’re just all over the place. And it’s unfortunate, because they can do better. This is a billion dollar company. They made $3.2 billion in profit last year. 34 billion in sales. They have 180,000 employees in 80,000 stores. There’s no way that each store, that any store anywhere should ever be without air conditioning. That any store anywhere should ever have to work with just one person.

Now, ideally these stores are in these nice neighborhoods, and things are really slow, and there’s no crime, and nothing going on. And in that instance, it wouldn’t be so bad to work in a store alone. And even then there’s always health concerns. Again, my manager passed out from health concerns because she’s in there alone with no time to even get a drink of water or use the restroom. We’re women. We should never be left in the store alone.

And it’s always women. Women close the stores, women open the stores. The majority of the Dollar General family, the majority of the store managers. Every store manager I know right now in my district is a female. The ones that I know. Now, there are 22 stores in my district so I don’t know a lot, but off the top of my head, I know about 11 that are females, which speaks highly to females. Go women. Yay. However, I think it would be awesome if we could have more males on the team. Males closing. Two females closing is just absolutely unacceptable. There should be three females closing, but that’s just me. I’m not a corporate executive in the office that controls the air conditioning. Max, do you know we can’t control our air conditioning from our stores? That it’s controlled in Texas?

Maximillian Alvarez:  Wow. So I had read a number of the complaints about the air conditioning specifically. I mean, Jesus, we’re getting heat wave after heat wave, the planet is boiling. I’m from California, so every year I watch more of my home state burn than the last year. And so I know that workers at dollar stores in Louisiana and all over the place have been really raising the alarm about the air conditioning situation. I did not know that you actually couldn’t control them at all in the stores.

Kenya Slaughter:  Literally. Isn’t that crazy? You ever worked anywhere where you didn’t have a thermostat that you could access yourself?

Maximillian Alvarez:  No, that’s like dystopian 1984 shit.

Kenya Slaughter:  Literally. It’s crazy. I have no idea where they get off. But they sit there and they come up with these perfect plans and how it should work because of what it looks like on paper. Here’s the reality of life, not just Dollar General, nothing is black and white. There are always variables. Always. And it’s the variables that they don’t account for. This isn’t a perfect make believe [The] Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe world. Okay? This is real life. And these things are, if they could come in and see, I would love for them to… They don’t even have to spend a day. Come spend an hour at high noon and see what goes on in your stores.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Well, and I mean, I think you really hit the nail on the head. Because on this show, we talk to workers from all different types of jobs and all over the country and beyond, and everyone’s got their own story. Everyone faces different struggles at work. But there are a lot of things that really jump out when you’re like, man, this sounds a lot like what other workers have been describing to me.

I love how you put it, because it always kind of blows my mind when, yeah, people with business degrees are all sitting in an air conditioned, corporate headquarters somewhere thinking up these ideas that they all think are brilliant. It’s like, oh, this is going to make us so much more efficient. This is going to make so much more profit. And they’re tweaking numbers on a spreadsheet and whatnot. When that translates to the daily reality of what you and your coworkers go through, you really see that disconnect between this corporate boardroom class of people and the actual front line workers, and how that sort of relentless push for profit over people really hurts everyone.

And I’ll bring up just one example. We’ve been talking to folks who are involved in working on the railroads. And if anyone listening, you live near a railroad line, you may have noticed that those trains, the freight trains, are getting longer. They’re like a mile long. And for decades, the railroad companies have been essentially trying to take… Those trains used to have five guys working them. And over the years, the railroad companies have cut costs and they’ve reduced the crews on those massive trains to two people, and they want to reduce it to one.

And so just like Kenya’s talking about how she and dollar store workers like herself are stuck basically managing an entire store on their own, which is ridiculous, you also have in other industries like the railroads these exhausted train conductors who are expected to be the only person on these trains. What if you crash? What if you flip over? What if something goes wrong? Yeah, that may look good on a spreadsheet, but what it actually looks like on a day-to-day reality is it’s not right.

Kenya Slaughter:  Absolutely. It’s far from what it looks like on the spreadsheets. And what’s so crazy, it’s not even just the high volume food desert areas, it’s any store. Even the stores that they believe are “perfect”, they still have their days. There are always variables. You’re dealing with the public. This isn’t an automated store with automated people coming in. We get customers from all walks of life. I have one of my favorite city councilwomen come in regularly. And I also have homeless people come in regularly. And I treat them all the same. It takes a special kind of person to work in retail or in customer service, period. And I am happy that I have the rapport with my customers that I do have. They don’t get a break. We don’t get a break. Why is there no this on the shelves? And I want to tell them, well, the truck is late, and somebody got COVID. And yeah, so we’re short staffed because somebody’s out sick, legit sick. And then the truck didn’t come.

Which, the truck’s not coming isn’t necessarily even the drivers of the truck’s fault all the time. There are variables. A road could be closed. There could be a major traffic accident backup. They’re in these 18 wheelers. They have to stop at certain places to get gas. It’s just a whole thing. There are so many variables with so many different players.

And working in the store, we get it the worst. Especially the person at the register, because you’re the person who gets asked the most things. You’re the person who has to do a lot. And if you’re in management, oh, poor management, you have to make sure the money is accounted for. You have to count every single till. You have to de-escalate situations if anything goes on in the store, i.e., a customer buys an Apple gift card or an Amazon gift card and it doesn’t activate for whatever reason. On your end, everything did fine. We know it wasn’t Dollar General because we generated a receipt. But something was going on with Amazon to where there was some type of glitch. Now you’re on the phone with customer service for hours trying to get the issue resolved and keep your customer calm at the same time.

All the while your store is still moving, you still have a line. You still need to make sure that your drawer is correct and you don’t dispense any incorrect change, or that your drawer doesn’t come up short. You don’t give anyone back too much or too little money while in the stressful situation of being on the phone trying to get that situated while a customer could very well be upset with reason to be. I gave you my money. It’s not on the card. It happens. They don’t think about that. And it happens more often than you would believe. And it’s nothing to do with the person at the register per se. I may not have even been the person who sold this card to this person, but I’m now the person taking care of it.

And me being the senior at my store, even though I’m no longer in management, because I did management for so long, of course it falls on me. And here’s another unfairness. Those corporate executives, when they do training, they get paid for training. Me, I do training, I just have to do it for the team. Because I’m a good person and I don’t want the person coming behind me to not know what they’re dealing with. You see what I’m saying?

Maximillian Alvarez:  Yeah. No, I hear you loud and clear. And that’s just, God, I let like an angry grunt escape my mouth because that pisses me off so much. And I think, yeah, again, the real kind of glaring problem, as you’ve been saying, is coming through so clearly. It’s just like, we’re not numbers on a spreadsheet. We’re human beings with complicated lives, and we face complicated situations every day on the job. You can’t just round those things out as a statistical error. No, that’s the job, is dealing with all of these unexpected things, or being available when you’re needed. And if you are being scheduled as the only person on, or even two people, when you have a rush, that’s not enough.

And I guess I wanted to bring that down to eye level even more with the time that I have left with you. Because as you said, you yourself, you’re a working person with a busy life. You are a parent with an autistic child. You have a lot of responsibilities. And you’re dealing with working at a company that doesn’t let you control the air conditioning when it’s super hot, that doesn’t schedule enough people when there are these big rushes, and doesn’t have security and all that stuff. I guess, could you give us more of a sense of what it looks like, like what a “typical week” looks like for you? And then if you could say a little more about how all of this led to the organizing y’all are doing at Step Up?

Kenya Slaughter:  Okay, briefly. So me, again, I told you I had to get on a set schedule. So I am at the store at 7:45 every morning, and I’m supposed to get off at 1:30, but I generally leave the store at 2:00. I get the shorter shift now. And that’s because I need to be able to drop my daughter off at school and pick her up from school. When I get to work, whether my boss is there or not, whoever’s there, I have to get to work, get the people away from the door because there’s always somebody outside waiting on you so that they can buy cigarettes. Let them know that we open at 8:00, which is 15 minutes from now, and give me just a moment.

We have a cigarette container. And I like to tell this because I know you’ve seen stores that have the iron gates that you pull down and lock to prevent people from getting in. They want us to lock up the cigarette cases because, in the event of the burglaries, the robberies where they break into the store, they broke in after we had the ice storm, and tried to get into the cigarette case. That’s the main thing that they go for. So we now have to move a Rolltainer. A Rolltainer is a 6’6″ by maybe two and a half foot steel contraption that you stack up your products on. So it’s like a rolling closet. It’s not as big as a closet. But just to give you an idea, it’s like a closet on wheels where you stack your items, your inventory, up on that, you have to go and put it out on the floor. So we have to push those in front of the cigarette case, lock them up with a chain that we had to go and buy from Lowe’s, and put locks on it.

So now every morning, instead of them just adding the little steel gates that they would’ve had to pay for, we have to take more time to move this Rolltainer and unlock it. Then we have to go and roll products outside. It’s summertime, so you need to take the pools outside, and the pool noodles, and whatever else. Potting soil. And again, rolling these six foot closets, on wheels, so to speak. They’re called Rolltainers. But just to give our listeners an idea of what we’re actually doing. There’s that.

I have to go in, I have to count the registers and count the petty cash and make sure that everything is where it’s supposed to be. Then I have to come in and open the store, which is punching a bunch of buttons on each register to get everything set up for the day. I have to check the start task to see if there’s any recalls on anything that needs to be pulled off the shelf, i.e., the peanut butter the other week, Jiffy. And several other things that may or may not need to be taken from the shelves.

Then by that time, it’s time for the store to open. I’m trying to hurry up and grab me a bottle of water so I can have something to sip while I’m at the register because people are already outside waiting. And there it goes. It starts. You get in there. And some mornings, my boss may have something else to do, or she may have needed to go pick up another employee or whatever the case. So there are some mornings where I may be there by myself for a little while.

First thing in the morning, you get your regulars. You get my customers that come in that are disabled, that may need a little assistance. I hurry up and help them and get everything going. Ring the people up, send them on their way. Tell them, have a good day while trying to maintain myself. Then there’s that part of the day where my boss has to go to the bank. She needs to go to the bank and get change for the next day and drop off the deposit. So again, that’s another time when myself or whomever else would be in the store alone. So now I’m in the store alone. And it seems like as soon as she goes, somebody needs something off the shelf. Somebody needs something from outside.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Always. Always.

Kenya Slaughter:  And now I have to go to the restroom. So I’m sitting here trying to hold it and get the customers together during my shift. And it ends up going really fast because you’re extremely busy. I get product that comes in on those. The rolling closet that I spoke of, there’s stuff on there that I need to get out. FedEx is going to drop off some packages. One of them is probably going to be cigarettes. One is going to be magazines. I need to check in magazines and cigarettes and get them both put up as well ASAP. I may get some phones that need to go in the office, which means I now have to step away from the register, go all the way into the office, and put those up.

All while ringing up customers, dealing with any other things that may arise during that time. And just get my station cleaned up, add bags back to the bag station so that they’re filled for the next person to come in for the next shift. Take out my trash. You’ll accumulate a lot of trash because you’re constantly cleaning up after everyone. People never put stuff back where it goes. And then there’s also a lot of theft and damaged goods. Then you have to damage that and dispose of it properly. So we have that.

And then at the end of my shift I go ahead and take my till out and go and count everything up, make sure everything is added up. Do my paperwork, where I see exactly how much I made, exactly how many customers I dealt with, pretty much. There may even be an analyst where it shows how many items I’ve rang up. But nonetheless, I rang them up so I know. Get all my paperwork, put that together, and end that there.

Max, also, I just want to say that, myself personally, nor is Step Up, we are not trying to attack Dollar General nor tear them down. They have the potential to be this amazing company that they try to paint themselves to be. They absolutely can do it. But if we could just get a little empathy for them to put themselves in our shoes and not look at us as numbers and statistics and scribble scrabble on a spreadsheet. Because it’s so much more than that. I just want them to take the time and see what we really have to deal with, what we encounter on a day to day basis, all while trying to keep a good morale. I’m good at it. I’m a happy person. I have so much to be thankful for because I’ve had so much tragedy happen in life. And I’m just thankful that I’m here to still raise my daughter. And I’m working for this company who has the potential to make my life a whole lot better.

We’re definitely asking for better pay and safer working conditions. Safer working conditions start with being fully staffed. Keep at least three people in the stores at all times, at least. Give the hours, pay the people. A higher pay rate would be ideal as well. Dollar General still currently starts at $8 an hour. Now a lot of people, store managers do have the authority to start you at $10. However, they can start you at $8. It should be nothing less than $15 an hour. Go ahead and give these people $15 an hour, even if they’re just a cashier. Because your cashier will never be just a cashier. Your cashier has to be a maintenance man. Your cashier has to be a crime stopper. Your cashier has to be a janitor. We have to take out the trash. We have to keep our restrooms clean. We have to pick up all the spills on our floor and the pickle jar that burst and we get glass in our hand. My boss got glass through her foot the other week taking out the trash. With shoes on. So things happen.

They don’t accommodate us. They don’t want her to go home. They want her to probably put a band-aid on it and keep going. So we just want safer working conditions. If we have an ice storm, we want to be able to close the store. If the air conditioner isn’t working, we want to be able to close the store. It would be nice to be able to control the air conditioning from our stores.

But again, we’re not here to tear them down. We just want them to do right. It’s only right. You have these people in these stores giving their all. Working, trying their best. People like myself who show up early and leave late every day that I’m at work. I come early and I leave late every day. I’m a team player. I’m training people for free. No one else trains anybody for free. Training comes with pay. The people that I’m training are being paid while I’m training them to do something that I’m not being paid to do. And I’m a team player, and I don’t want anybody out there in our store not up to par doing what they need to do, not knowing how. So of course I’m going to help because that’s my moral compass, but it would be nice to be compensated for it.

Any dollar store workers, any concerned citizens, any dollar store shoppers, our Facebook group is Dollar Store Workers United. And you’ll see an orange symbol with a Step Up Louisiana logo as well. That’s us. I am Kenya Slaughter on LinkedIn. My email is kenyaps123@gmail. And you guys can also Google Step Up Louisiana, go to our website, we do take donations there. It is a nonprofit. And yeah, stepuplouisiana.com. You can find us on the net. And I gave you guys my LinkedIn, as well as my email address. Feel free to reach out to me. I’m willing to talk to anyone in any way that I can to help or give you my opinion or my experiences of the last four years working for Dollar General. I’m all for that. We do appreciate you.

Curtis Williams:  My name is Curtis Williams, and I’m a long time resident of Louisiana. I live in Slidell, Louisiana. And born and raised in New Orleans. And with myself, I’ve worked on other campaigns to help fight for justice and equal rights and opportunities for other people. Once I learned of the mission of Step Up Louisiana, which was their goal of better jobs, better pay, and education, I decided to join that fight. But this isn’t about me, Mr. Max. This is about the dollar store workers. This is about people who stand in need, and we’re trying to bridge the gap. They need better pay and they need better working conditions because that affects the businesses. And it also affects our community.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Hell yeah. Well, Curtis, it’s such a pleasure to get to chat with you today. Thank you so much for taking the time, man. I really, really appreciate it. And yeah, like you said, we’ve got a really important struggle here to talk about with the dollar store workers in Louisiana and around the country. And I’m curious to know a little more how you yourself got involved with Stand Up. And how you would talk to, say, other community members about why this struggle is important. I guess, when you get into those sorts of conversations, what do you talk to them about?

Curtis Williams:  Well, just as I said, I became involved in Step Up Louisiana through a former colleague of mine, Greg Wilson, who’s over the dollar store campaign. It is a big struggle for the workers because we have a dollar store located on every other corner. But yet, as a customer and a consumer, when you go into the stores, the shelves are empty, nothing is stocked, and you don’t have the opportunity to take and always get all the items you need. And usually they’re pretty shorthanded, so it’s never a run in and out. But those are the things that affect the operation of the store, which in turn affects our community.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Yeah. I mean, you’re not kidding. I think I was kind of blown away when I saw the number, the sheer number of dollar stores that are cropping up, like I said, not just around Louisiana, but all over the country. And I think as per the Step Up Louisiana website, right now in Louisiana, there are 111 Dollar Tree stores, there are 324 Family Dollar stores, and there are 536 Dollar General locations. And so, like Curtis said, I mean, they’re basically on every corner. And obviously with the pandemic, with inflation going on right now, a lot of people rely on the dollar stores to get the basic necessities that they need. And a lot of workers rely on them for their jobs.

And yet we’ve been hearing report after report of the horrible conditions that workers at these dollar stores are working under. All the different ways that there are concerns for better pay. There’s a store, I think in Oklahoma, that just walked out, all of them, because they’ve been trying to get the air conditioner fixed, and we’re in a heat wave right now. And management just wouldn’t do anything about it. And so they’re boiling in their store, and they walked out. And this is not an exception. This is the kind of story that we hear at these dollar stores all around the country. And Curtis, I wanted to ask you a little bit about that. Could you say a bit more for folks listening how much the people in your community use the dollar store, and I guess what the conditions are like in there, as far as you can see, as a customer?

Curtis Williams:  Yes, Max. As a customer and consumer, I can definitely see the struggles that the dollar store is faced with. As a consumer, you take and you go in, just like I say, everything isn’t properly stocked. It really does affect the community, simply because we do use it as a place to be able to go get bare necessities, the little things we need. And I know that dollar stores are trying to expand on some of their products. But even though they may be expanding on the products, those products don’t always seem to make it to the shelf.

Maximillian Alvarez:  And yeah, what does that look like now? I mean, with the baby formula stuff. Because I have to imagine, I mean in LA and Southern California, where I’m from, there are a lot of these dollar stores. And it’s kind of where we go when we need basic necessities and it’s too expensive to buy them at a regular shop. So yeah. I mean that’s got to be pretty distressing, right? To walk in and just see kind of half filled shelves when everyone is scrambling looking for baby formula and all that stuff right now.

Curtis Williams:  Yes, definitely with that, Max. You have to realize that some of the Dollar Generals and the Family Dollars and the Dollar Trees are some of the closest stores and locations that some of our community can get to, especially our elderly people in the community. So they do make an attempt to take and go to the dollar store and try to give them business as part of the community. But at the same time, if you don’t have the products that are needed there, then you may have a customer who may come in, had their whole meal planned, and now they have to change their whole meal because they couldn’t find a product that they wanted. That’s what we’re dealing with on a daily basis with Dollar General, even as a consumer. We take and we go into the stores. And usually they’re shorthanded. Some of the staff are really nice, but they’re really struggling. And I actually feel bad for them because when you look at the money that the company makes, it’s hard to understand why they’re struggling so badly when the company is doing so well.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Yeah. No, that’s well put, man. I mean, this is the kind of thing we’re hearing all over the country. It’s like the same businesses that are raking in record profits and paying their shareholders these huge dividends are also refusing to pay workers living wages. Or they’re jacking up prices on consumers. It’s really gross to see. And I wanted to ask you a little more about that, what the workers are going through. Like you said, you go in and the workers there, they do their best. They try to put on a smiling face, but you can tell that they’re struggling. Could you paint a picture for folks listening of what you’re seeing as a customer, what you’re seeing workers at dollar stores go through right now?

Curtis Williams:  Yeah. As a consumer, I go in there, and just like you say, some of them are trying to do the best they can. But just like you say, there’s always a struggle with that. You look at the profit and you look at part of the campaign of the dollar stores. We went to Nashville, Tennessee, to the shareholders meeting, where we went and had an action to try to take and make our voices heard to give better pay and working conditions to the dollar store employees. That’s what the campaign in Nashville was about when we went to the shareholders meeting. Which, they blocked us out of the meeting simply because they say the meeting started four minutes ago and they weren’t allowed to open it up. Even though we had representatives who had the proper paperwork to enter that meeting.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Wow. And so yeah, I’m sure they’re trying to avoid facing y’all as much as they possibly can. And rightfully so. They should be afraid, because this is BS and people are fed up with it. And they can run and hide in their little boardrooms, but they can’t ignore the people forever. And I think that’s why it’s so incredible that y’all are doing what you’re doing. And that you’ve got community members and customers and workers coming together to really raise this issue. And so I wanted to sort of ask a little more about that. What is the Stand Up Louisiana campaign around these dollar store workers? Could you tell us a bit more about that campaign and how it’s growing? I guess there may be folks listening to this who are just hearing about it now and want to learn more.

Curtis Williams:  Well, yes. The Step Up Louisiana dollar store campaign which we’re working on is, just as I stated before, to give more money and better working conditions for the employees. In our Step Up organization, we have dollar store employees, we have former employees, we have people who have worked in management and who had the opportunity to experience exactly what we’re out here fighting for. So that’s why it’s very important that we stay involved as a community. Because as the consumer, we are the community and we need to be able to benefit from your business being in that area if you’re going to have your business in the area. It has to be beneficial to the community. And that’s where I think the Dollar General and dollar stores are dropping the ball.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Well, and I know that you mentioned this a little earlier, and actually I’m glad you reminded me because I meant to follow up on it, but what is the presence of all of these dollar stores all over the place? What does that mean for business in the surrounding community?

Curtis Williams:  Well, as far as the business in the surrounding communities, you have dollar stores that are popping up everywhere. So it does take from other businesses, but it won’t take from a business in the sense that if they had the opportunity to have their products and everything readily available, just as I stated earlier, you go there and you may not be able to get what meal you already had prepared in your head. So then you have to maybe switch or go to another location. Or maybe you just go to one of these big old box stores that some people don’t like going in because they’re so big and it just takes so long.

The dollar store is supposed to be more convenient, more accessible, and more available to supply you with minimum needs, and go ahead and get you in and get you out. They are dropping the ball on that. And they’re doing it through the community, and we are the ones that are affected and are suffering from that along with the workers. It’s all about the workers and the community. They just need more money, they need better working conditions, and they need an opportunity to be able to grow.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Yeah. I mean, again, I thought that was really well put, man. And I think one of the things that’s so important about what y’all are doing is, we cover worker struggles on this show, that’s what we do. And we’ve talked a lot about the fact that, legally, it’s actually illegal for workers at other jobs and in other industries to go on what are called sympathy strikes. So say if these dollar store workers went on strike and the McDonald’s workers across the street wanted to do what workers did in the ’30s, and they said, you know what? We’re going to go on strike in solidarity with you. You can’t do that anymore. Or I guess you technically can, but it gets very legally dicey.

And so that was a big weapon that they took out of our hands, was workers being able to support one another in those struggles with sympathy strikes and stuff like that. But what y’all are doing is you’re showing that workers and the community can still work and act together to make change. And I think that that’s a really important breakthrough. I think about all the other strikes and unionization efforts going on around the country, if we had that support between workers and community members, we could really do some amazing things.

Curtis Williams:  Well, yes we can. Because this is, as I say, with Step Up Louisiana, it’s a community based organization. So we are not a union, but we are here to take and stand up and stand behind the community and step up with the community. So that’s what we’re looking at. As far as the strike of solidarity, the majority of dollar stores and Generals are built in these right-to-work states. So just as you say, when you have other companies that try to support in solidarity, these days they’re able to just be terminated with no questions asked, depending on what state you’re operating out of. And that’s just not right. You’re taking the voices away from the people.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Damn right. And man, yeah, I’m so glad that I was able to connect with you and learn more about this effort with Step Up Louisiana. And I guess I wanted to ask you before I let you go, folks listening to this, what would you say to them about Step Up, and how they can get involved where they are, and how they can support this struggle that y’all are engaged in with dollar store workers?

Curtis Williams:  Well, what they can simply do, we have three operations that work out of New Orleans, also Baton Rouge, and also Westbank Campus for the Step Up Louisiana. What I want people listening to this to know is that you are welcome to come join our organization. And our organization is there because we are a community based organization that’s here to help fight for money and education and better conditions for our community.

So if you are listening, you’re within earshot, you can support by joining Step Up Louisiana. You also could support by standing up and helping speak to the workers and help speak to the community. And any information that can be relayed that can help us to take and further our cause, that will be greatly appreciated. Just as I said, our dollar store general organizer is Mr. Greg Wilson. He’s the one in charge of that in our Step Up Louisiana organization. And if you ever have the opportunity, all you have to do is just give us a call. We’ll be happy to tell you what we can do to help you, and how we can go about getting the change started.

Maximillian Alvarez

Editor-in-Chief

Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
 
Email: max@therealnews.com
 
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