JJB Sports workers fight “first world sweatshop"

Submitted by cathy n on 20 November, 2006 - 1:13


280 GMB members at the Wigan warehouse which supplies all 430 JJB Sports shops in the UK are striking against a millionaire boss who describes their demand for all workers to receive an equal wage of at least £6.50 an hour as “the communist way — cuckoo land!”

Wages in the Martland Park depot vary between the minimum wage of £5.35 and £6.90 an hour, and targets for bonuses are increasingly difficult to achieve, leaving most workers with about £200 a week. This in a business with a gross turnover of £745 million and profits of £34 million last year. The union is demanding equalisation of pay rates to guarantee all workers something close to the top end of the existing wage scale and a new system of bonuses to allow everyone who works hard to get one.

This is what main shareholder Dave Whelan, whose personal fortune is something like £200 million, describes as communism. Meanwhile he has tried to use agency workers to break the strike in defiance even of laws introduced by New Labour.

The workers took 24 hours strike action on 31 October, 2 November and 9 November, and are planning an escalating campaign of action in the run up to Christmas. Sacha Ismail spoke to their shop steward Chris Riley.

“Our demand is for equal pay throughout the workforce. At the moment there are different wage structures for different departments, with some of us on the minimum wage and others quite a bit higher. We are demanding a figure between £6.50 and £6.80 for all workers, in addition to better access to performance bonuses.

“JJB Chief Executive Tom Knight agreed to our demands, but Dave Whelan intervened personally to veto the agreement. We are now being offered 3%, which in the context of inflation and our existing wages is a joke.

"The other issue is the pace we're forced to work at, and the targets we have to meet to get a bonus. We’re supposed to make 1,600 “picks” from the shelves a day. One union member stuck on a pedometer and found that, after walking the equivalent of 14 miles, he hadn’t managed to do it! We have supervisors standing around and pushing us to go faster all the time, so we’re exhausted and the situation is getting worse and worse. Even our tea breaks, and the time we take washing our hands, is monitored, so it’s unsustainable.

"The result is that we’ve taken three days strike action so far and are planning more, building up to a full week near Christmas if we don't get our demands.

"In JJB Sports, only the warehouses are unionised, not the shops. We now have about 75% membership - on the second day of strike action, 35 people joined.

"The GMB nationally has pledged £25,000 to support our action, and Billy Bragg will be playing a benefit, though there's no date yet. We're also hoping to get further donations from all the meetings we sending speakers to. The level of solidarity has been fantastic.

"We've received support from other GMB branches in Wigan, including at Asda, and after I spoke today [at the Organising for Fighting Unions conference] I was mobbed by people wanting to know what they and their branch could do to support us.

"We're meeting Ian McArtney about the fact that Dave Whelan has boasted quite openly about agency workers from Wigan and Manchester being used to cover for us during our action, which is illegal under laws he pushed to bring in. We also want to challenge the council, which is run by Labour, on the fact that Whelan recently received the "Freedom of Wigan".

"The GMB originally got No Sweat involved in supporting us because our warehouse handles supplies from Adidas and Nike. But it makes sense: we're basically a first world sweatshop, living on the poverty line and pushed by managers whose only concern is the bottom line. We're fighting back, but we need your support."

Email messages of support to chrisfluffriley@hotmail.co.uk and send donations (including presents for the strikers' kids!) to GMB Lancashire, Thorne House, 36 Station Road, Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire, SK8 7AB.

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