Low paid workers, many on the minimum wage, are in a bitter battle over pay against their multi-millionaire employer in Wigan.
While the warehouse workers from JJB Sports were on the picket line last week, their boss David Whelan was sunning himself in Barbados.
Over 260 GMB union members were set to strike again for two days on Wednesday and Thursday of this week. They have already had five previous strike days.
Senior shop steward and warehouse picker John Stewart said, “We are totally committed to this because it is a basic issue about pay equality in the workplace.
“We all wear different coloured T-shirts for whatever department we work in and we are all on different money.
“In-goods loaders are on £5.35 an hour and out-going loaders are on £5.50 for doing exactly the same job.
“When we point out that warehouse workers at Wincanton, Asda or Sainsburys are on a basic of £8 per hour we get told, ‘If you don’t like it, you know what you can do’.”
The warehouse staff marched out of JJB Sports on Thursday of last week behind a Wild West style stagecoach pulled by four white horses.
This was in protest at what the union sees as the company driving a coach and horses through the law regarding the use of agency workers during a strike.
Union rep Chris Riley told Socialist Worker, “There are over 200 people on the picket lines and the atmosphere is brilliant. It’s a bit of a carnival compared with having to work for JJB.”
JJB has refused to increase a 3 percent across the board pay offer.
The workers are demanding everyone working in the warehouse receives a higher basic wage, with top ups for different jobs. At present a skills bonus scheme is a large element.
Whelan has denounced the union’s pay proposal plan as tantamount to “Communism”.
A continuous overtime ban and work to rule is now in place.
Last Saturday the workers gave out 15,000 leaflets at Wigan Athletic Football Club’s home game at the JJB stadium.
David Whelan owns most of Wigan Athletic.
Supporters in the ground held a “yellow card” protest to give a warning to him. One union rep was evicted from the ground after holding up a banner in support of the strike.
The striking workers are in buoyant mood, but the dispute took a potentially nasty turn on Thursday of last week.
A truck was delivering sportswear to the warehouse during the strike. As it left the site its driver allegedly gesticulated at the strikers and collided with a GMB promotional trailer.
The trailer was shunted into the pickets and three union members were injured. One person was taken to hospital with cuts and bruises.
GMB organiser Sandra Bligh said, “He started gesturing to the crowd, passing comments like ‘Get back to work.’
“Because he was doing that, he wasn’t looking and the other side of the vehicle clipped the corner of our mobile unit and swung it round. It knocked me down into the road, I just missed the wheels.”
While his workers are on the minimum wage JJB Sports magnate David Whelan is doing rather better. Whelan and his wife Patricia have sold the best part of a £3 million stake in the company this month.
Whelan said that only about half that amount had been sold, adding, “If it’s anyone’s business, I have only sold a few shares.
“It’s peanuts. It’s only for tax purposes – for when the chancellor of the exchequer comes knocking in the new year.”
David Whelan, or “Mr Wigan” as he likes to be known, is the largest shareholder in JJB, Britain’s biggest sports retailing chain. He has a personal fortune estimated at £230 million and a reputation as “a mean man with a penny” among the strikers.
Workers talk of him as someone they find authoritarian, and who once told a union rep that “democracy doesn’t always work”, and that the majority vote “isn’t always right”.
The workers are winning wide support.
Chris Riley said, “The support of people locally and around the country has been wonderful. We are determined to keep the pressure up to force management to give us a decent rise.”
The GMB in London has organised a protest in support of the strikers for Thursday 16 November at 6pm on Oxford Street.
The workers are set to take strike action on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of next week.
Please send messages of support and donations (made payable to “GMB”) to Graham Wells, GMB branch secretary, 80 St Georges Road, Bolton, Lancashire BL1 2DD. To book a speaker for your workplace or trade union branch, phone Graham on 01204 523 011 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org