Back to the '80s as 'Mr Wigan' takes on the 'communist'

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The Independent Online

A small part of the Wild West descended on Wigan yesterday. A coach and horses, packed with suitably gnarled old cowboys, charged around the town a-whooping and a-hollering.

It was not immediately obvious to passers-by why "Shane" and the boys had hit town in such a fashion.

In fact it was part of the GMB general union's slightly eccentric method of demonstrating that a group of employment agencies were "driving a coach and horses" through labour law by breaking a strike.

The Wild West extravaganza was yet another episode in the colourful, real-life soap opera starring David Whelan, or "Mr Wigan" as he is known in these parts.

The multimillionaire is the largest shareholder in JJB, Britain's biggest sports retailing chain, and owner of most of Wigan Athletic, which has defied all the football sages to survive a second year in the premiership.

Yet "Mr Wigan", a 69-year-old former professional footballer with a personal fortune estimated at £230m, is not universally popular in his home town. The industrial action is in protest at "poverty" pay and is taking place at his company's main warehouse complex on the outskirts of the town.

One of three employment agencies allegedly playing fast and loose with the law by supplying strike-breakers is co-owned by David Speedie, a former Scottish international who made his money playing for Liverpool and Chelsea before branching out into business.

Mr Speedie is no stranger to controversy. Two years ago he was at the centre of a row after allegedly making racist remarks during a speech at a dinner - an allegation he vigorously denies. Speedie denies that his employment agency has supplied strike-breakers and JJB also reject any suggestion that they have used any.

Undoubtedly, the alpha male in the conflict is Mr Whelan. Routinely referred to as "Dave Whelan" in sports pages, he is always called "Mr Whelan" by his employees. He has a reputation as "a mean man with a penny" among the strikers.

Glynis West, a 52-year-old warehouse worker who was among more than 200 pickets outside the huge JJB site in the Greater Manchester town yesterday, said she earned £200 a week - £220 if she received a bonus. "The problem is that it gets more and more difficult to earn the extra £20. Last week I worked really hard and could not manage it. Sometimes we are running as fast as we can. You're so tired you often have to go to bed early." She pointed out that even her 32-year-old daughter, Diane, found it difficult to meet the target.

The union wants all workers to have access to bonus payments set at a level that is easier to achieve.

While his business was being hit by 24-hour strikes on Tuesday and yesterday, Mr Whelan was thought to be still sunning himself at his holiday home in Barbados - although the rumour on the picket line was that he was on his way back.

The GMB says that many of the strikers earn little more than the national minimum wage of £5.35 an hour, although Mr Whelan says that with bonus payments some of them can earn double that amount.

Union activists at JJB profess bemusement at a Labour borough council which had given him the freedom of the borough.

Employees talk of him as an authoritarian figure who once told a union rep that "democracy doesn't always work" and that the majority vote "isn't always right".

Mr Whelan is not without his supporters in Wigan. It is pointed out that he has provided hundreds of people with employment and put the place on the map.

He has always been a "hands-on" businessman - a trait which proved unhelpful in the present dispute, according to the union.

Some weeks ago JJB's chief executive, Tom Knight and the GMB seemed to be nearing a settlement, which involved a system whereby staff could earn extra for productivity. Mr Whelan intervened and "overturned the apple cart", denouncing the union's proposals plan as tantamount to "Communism". He offered the workforce a 3 per cent flat rate increase, which was rejected, and then promptly left for Barbados.

The scene could soon switch to the courtroom. The union is preparing to take legal action because of JJB's alleged recruitment of agency workers. Under recent legislation agencies can be fined up to £5,000 for each strike-breaker they provide.