JJB Sports workers were celebrating victory against one of Britain’s most ruthless companies this week.
JJB boss David Whelan epitomises the drive to get more out of every worker. He wants an obedient and flexible workforce, accepting his orders and paid the legal minimum.
But a series of strikes, organised by GMB union members, humbled Whelan in just three weeks. The struggle shows the power and democracy workers can harness when they begin to fight back.
A mass meeting on Monday of this week voted overwhelmingly to end the action. The workers have won a basic rate of pay of £6.40 an hour, up from about £5.35 an hour and equalised across the workforce. This will be backdated to 1 August. Performance bonuses will now be open to all sections of the warehouse.
Dozens of union members were gathered on the picket line on Thursday of last week, the second day of a 48-hour strike. This was, one of the reps told me, “a scaled down picket line”. At times well over 100 of the 272 strikers have attended.
Word of the proposed deal had already started to spread. The workers were jubilant and determined to end their strike action as defiantly as they had started it.
It is not hard to see why the strike was popular. Before the dispute, JJB employees could expect to earn little more than the minimum wage – with an unfair system of bonuses that left most workers with nothing. Their boss has a personal fortune of £200 million and flies to work in a private helicopter.
“His helicopter hanger is next to our canteen,” said David Moss, one of the GMB reps. “The fumes blow in while we’re eating – we don’t eat food, we eat aviation fuel.”
When the workers dared to demand a fair and equal pay scheme, Whelan accused them of being “communists”. “We call him a dictator,” said one striker. “If communism means wanting equality, then I’m a communist,” commented another.
The GMB members don’t see their victory in purely economic terms. “It’s about respect, not just pay,” said Joan Simpson, who represents the pickers, mostly women workers, at the warehouse. The pickers were among the most militant section – just seven out of about 160 went into work on strike days.
This was all the more impressive as there were conscious efforts to divide them from other sections. “They’ve segregated us by putting us on a bonus, which means we can earn more,” said Joan. “That’s caused friction, but our demand for equal pay has drawn everyone together.”
The strike will also make managers think twice about bullying staff. In the past Whelan’s style has been transmitted down through management. “There’s a strict hierarchy inside,” said Joan.
David Moss, who has worked at JJB for eight years, agreed. “He’s very arrogant and he passes that attitude down,” he said. “I’ve never got anything out of Whelan, I still earn about £203 a week.
“This is the first time there’s been a strike here. It’s like a stepping stone – if the attitude stays the same there could be more action.”
Another striker suggested that action to win pension rights and sick pay “like other workers get” might follow.
Joe, also a GMB rep, was introduced to me as the “founder of our union”. Joe said, “When I came to work here eight years ago I noticed that people’s rights were being taken away. I talked to a few people and said we should join a union.
“I went to the unemployed workers’ centre in Wigan and they put me in touch with the GMB. I started distributing information in secret and I got a good response, which I reported to the GMB.
“Then we held a meeting, away from the warehouse, and about 100 people turned up.”
Now over half the workforce are in the union and 30 more joined during the strike. The reps plan to recruit the rest in the wake of the victory.
The strikes have been characterised by mass participation and what the workers call “a carnival atmosphere”.
As they came together to have their picture taken on the picket line, the workers began a spontaneous rendition of the Strawbs’ song “Part of the Union”. “We’ve been having singing lessons during the strike,” said one striker.
Chris Riley, another GMB rep, said, “The support we’ve had has been overwhelming. I spoke at the Organising for Fighting Unions conference in London and I haven’t stopped talking about it since.
“You hear talk of comradeship and solidarity, but I never really understood until then. I’ve been invited to a trades council meeting in Manchester, and a teachers’ union meeting. There’s support from every union from all round the country. That makes 270 workers feel like 270,000.
“When our dispute is over I want to give something back – I’m a radical now.”
The GMB has monitored what is says are “the illegal strikebreaking activities of the three local employment agencies” during the dispute.
The union says that the agencies supplied workers to do strikers jobs. The Employment Agencies Standards Inspectorate has interviewed the agencies, and the GMB will continue to press for better enforcement of the inspectorate’s powers.
The alleged attempt to use agency labour to break the strike will come as no surprise in the town, where the strike has been widely supported.
Whelan likes to style himself “Mr Wigan” and is chair of the town’s football club Wigan Athletic. “But he’s a tight bastard,” mutters the taxi driver who takes me from the station to the picket line, before recounting his own list of grievances against Whelan.
Others I spoke to in the town centre expressed similar views. Most can see the justice of the JJB workers’ fight against “Wigan’s only plutocrat”. If Whelan is right in his characterisation of his workers, then it seems that everyone’s a communist now.