Workers have had enough: Labor's tide is rising, from Amazon to Dollar General and beyond

As NYC pension funds go after Amazon, Rev. William J. Barber takes on Dollar General's notorious labor practices

Published June 4, 2022 8:00AM (EDT)

Rev. William Barber speaks during the Georgetown to Austin March for Democracy rally on July 31, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Rev. William Barber speaks during the Georgetown to Austin March for Democracy rally on July 31, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared at LaborPress. Used by permission.

While the nation was reeling from the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, well-organized labor protests extended into the historically union-hostile Southern "right to work" states

and at stockholder meetings, where public pension funds took aim at anti-worker corporate leadership.

On May 25, in what New York City Comptroller Brad Lander called a "stinging rebuke" of Amazon's corporate leadership, 27% of outside shares voted to reject the re-election of Amazon director Judith McGrath, chair of the company's Leadership Development and Compensation Committee, which signed off on paying its top five executives $400 million last year, including $212 million in time-vested shares to CEO Andrew Jassy. 

Last month, Lander, on behalf of the five New York City retirement systems — along with New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs — called on Amazon shareholders to oppose the re-election of key Amazon directors for their lack of oversight of the company's anti-worker business model.

RELATED: America's new class war: Organized labor is back

"A critical mass of shareholders delivered a stinging rebuke to Amazon's leadership regarding the company's high injury rates, unsustainable turnover, and blatant violations of workers' rights to freedom of association," Lander said in a statement. The "significant percentage" of no-confidence votes in McGrath, he continued, "show that Amazon must take these concerns seriously." The retirement systems he oversees, Lander said, "recognize that the company's long-term value depends on the well-being of its workforce, the second largest in the nation." Amazon's board, he concluded, "must demonstrate to investors that they are responsive to shareholders and taking action to address these risks to the company's long-term value."

Dollar General's scorched-earth resistance to unions has included closing down stores rather than abiding by the results of duly-held labor elections.

Also on May 25, in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II was turned away from an annual stockholders meeting of the Dollar General Corporation held in the municipal town hall. Dollar General employs 163,000 workers at more than 18,000 locations in 47 states, and has come under fire for a business model which relies on paying less than a living wage in the poor neighborhoods and disadvantaged communities where it often locates.

Dollar General is notorious for its scorched-earth approach to resisting unionization, which has included shutting down store locations rather than being bound by the results of duly-held National Labor Relations Board elections. Last year, CEO Todd Vasos received $16.45 million in total compensation, which was 986 times the media pay of a Dollar General worker, according to the AFL-CIO.  

Close to 200 clergy members, labor activists and Dollar General employees from as far away as Florida and  North Carolina rallied outside the Goodlettsville town hall as Dr. Barber was turned away, along with organizer Gabriel Bolden Shaw and Dollar General employee Kenya Slaughter. They all possessed valid shareholder proxies, which should have entitled them to entry.

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On the shareholder meeting agenda of the company, which has $34 billion in annual revenue, was a motion requiring Dollar General to publicly disclose its political spending, which corporate leadership opposed.

The Nashville Scene reported that "when Barber, Bolden Shaw and Slaughter entered the building, Dollar General representatives packed up check-in materials and kept the meeting room's doors locked, explaining that the three individuals had shown up four minutes late."

"There's no rule that says we can't go in," Barber told the Dollar General official. "We are members. We are shareholders. You saw us coming. We are shareholders. We are shareholders. We are shareholders."

Barber then stepped up to the locked door and repeatedly rapped on it with his cane. "In the name of Jesus — in the name of Jesus — in the name of Jesus, I am a shareholder," he said. "If you can get a cop here to tell me I don't have a right to be here, I will stop. This is a public building. We are shareholders."

After knocking to no avail, Barber added, "We don't want to disrupt or come to do violence. You see what they do to working people. We are shareholders. They are scared of the people. We are shareholders in a city hall, a public space where anybody can come in."   

Barber knocked on the locked door with his cane. "In the name of Jesus," he said, "I am a shareholder. Get a cop to tell me I don't have a right to be here."

In a response to LaborPress, a Dollar General spokesperson wrote that Barber, "whom we understand to have been designated as the representative of a beneficial shareholder (and not a shareholder himself), was present outside the Goodlettsville City Hall well in advance of the shareholder meeting and as part of the demonstration. The shareholder meeting began promptly at 9 a.m., its official start time. We are unaware of any individual, including Rev. Barber, who sought access to the meeting at or before that time and was denied access." 

The Goodlettsville rally was sponsored by Step Up Louisiana, a New Orleans-based economic justice nonprofit that works with Barber's Poor People's Campaign, which is planning a national march on June 18 to highlight the struggles of the tens of millions of low-wage households across the nation, many of which include "essential workers" who have been on the frontlines of the pandemic.

"We're here for respect, dignity and better pay," one Dollar Store employee told the Nashville Scene. "We're sick and tired of the bullshit in these stores. We get paid little to nothing, and this is where we need to make our statement. Those executives get top dollar." The worker, who came from Louisiana, told the news outlet that over two years his hourly wage of $8 per hour had only gone up to $9.25. 

In 2020, Dollar General, which is headquartered in Goodlettsville, opted to close a store in Missouri where it lost a union election rather than negotiate with its employees, according to the Washington Post. Before shuttering the location, it spent 28 months fighting the legitimacy of the vote in the courts. It fired an employee who had initiated the organizing effort and ultimately, under the terms of an NLRB settlement, had to compensate the dismissed worker as well as post signage in the store's break room notifying employees that the company would not fire workers for union activity. 

In 2015, the Post reported, Dollar General's employee handbook proclaimed that its "union free status is one reason we continue to grow and provide employment while many unionized companies have declined." 

"Dollar General has 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," the Post report continued, adding that Dollar General stores often stocked products like pain relievers in "small sizes instead of bulk to keep prices low and profit margins high."

On the company's May 26 earnings call, Dollar General officials announced that in the first quarter of 2022 they had spent a half-billion more on stock buybacks than on physical investment in their business.

"Total capital expenditures for the quarter were $282 million and included our planned investments in new stores, remodels and relocations, distribution and transportation projects and spending related to the strategic initiatives," John Garrett, Dollar General's CFO, told call participants. "During the quarter, we repurchased 3.4 million shares of our common stock for $747 million and paid a quarterly cash dividend of $0.55 per common share outstanding for a total payout of $125 million. At the end of Q1, the remaining share repurchase authorization was $1.4 billion."

Investigative economist and attorney James Henry, a global justice fellow at Yale University and a senior fellow at Columbia University's Center for Sustainable Investment, said investors should be concerned by Dollar General's decision to plow hundreds of millions of dollars into a stock buyback.

"One of the poorest investments management can make in a company is to repurchase stock shares," Henry said during a phone interview. "It is often done just because the executives have shares in the company, but it is an indication that they look around the world and see all the things they could be investing in as a company and they don't see any opportunities for real investment or real job creation. It's a sign that the company is out of ideas." 

"One of the poorest investments management can make is to repurchase stock shares," said economist and attorney James Henry. "It's a sign that the company is out of ideas."

Earlier in the week, scores of call-center workers under contract with Maximus went on strike and set up picket lines in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Bogalusa, Louisiana, according to the tech journal FCW, which tracks federal government tech contracts. Maximus holds billions of dollars in federal contracts, which include outsourced Medicare and Medicaid call centers that employ 10,000 workers at 10 sites in eight states. According to the Communications Workers of America, the call center workforce is composed primarily of women and people of color. 

On a press call organized by the CWA, Yasming Johnson, a call center employee from the Hattiesburg location, told reporters she "went on strike for a simple reason ... to demand better pay and affordable health care coverage. My family is hurting right now. Everything is going up except for the pay."

Johnson continued. ""It is shameful that we work for a federal contractor that grosses billions of dollars from the government … and it is also shameful that we help millions of Americans around the world and we don't have access to our own health care. We can't afford our own health care."

In a statement sent to LaborPress, Maximus spokesperson Eileen Rivera wrote that since the company had acquired the call center business it had worked at "improving compensation, reducing employees' out-of-pocket health care expenses and continuously improving the work environment" and was "creating opportunities for advancement and promoting a diverse workforce."

"Maximus routinely meets with its employees to address various concerns and issues," Rivera continued. "We have an 'open door' policy at all our sites and our employees frequently use it. We also have employee hotlines where employees can submit issues anonymously."

"These workers are doing enormously important work for CMS and are entitled to decent wages, decent benefits and certainly the right to organize a union without employer harassment," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. "Maximus has a federal contract worth over $5 billion, and the taxpayers of our country want to know that people who receive federal contracts like that treat their workers with respect and dignity."

President Biden tossed a lifeline to low-wage federal workers and contract workers earlier this year with an executive order establishing a $15 minimum wage for those workers. Currently, the federal minimum wage remains at $7.25 an hour, and has not increased since 2009. An effort to raise it early in Biden's tenure failed when several Senate Democrats sided with Republicans to reject it. 

Read more on the resurgence of the labor movement:

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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