Between a rock . . .

May 26, 1995

Natfhe, the college lecturers' union, is caught in a vice. On the one hand, the Association of University Teachers looks attractive to upwardly mobile staff in new universities. On the other, the college contracts dispute, prolonged and bitter, threatens to deliver Natfhe's college membership to the expansionist ambitions of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

A year ago it looked as if sanity might be breaking out when Natfhe elected John Akker from the AUT as general secretary with a mandate to negotiate a settlement of the contracts dispute. Mr Akker knew Natfhe had missed a good chance for a deal in the months surrounding college incorporation in 1993. Point-blank refusal to talk about a new contract had resulted in the Colleges Employers Forum foisting its unnegotiated version on all new recruits. He knew a change of approach was necessary and hoped to use Westminster contacts to lobby for sufficiently well-funded expansion to float new agreements (as had been done in higher education). His manifesto said: "Natfhe needs a general secretary with great experience of coordinating campaigns to protect members' conditions and jobs. This should be done by proper national negotiations."

Following the aborted talks at Acas and an expected 10,000 redundancies in all, it looks as if Mr Akker bit off more than he could chew. Public spending targets have been too tight for a deal to be floated on extra cash for expansion. This year's Further Education Funding Council allocations reveal there is simply not enough money in the sector to meet many college expansion plans. The union was faced with a determined Government and a gung-ho employers' organisation.

Virtually every weapon in Britain's anti-trade union armoury has been used to break the old style Silver Book contracts. The High Court ruled that "all but a handful" of members must be balloted for a lawful strike. Pay rises have been refused to those continuing on Silver Book contracts.

Mr Akker seems to have been overwhelmed by events and by the political factionalism he aimed to overcome. He was caught out by the CEF's agreement to go to Acas and has not been able to convince his negotiating colleagues that a national agreement with the CEF was possible. The concept of a national contract has been allowed to die because of fears of union capitulation and division.

But any solution to this dispute was going to be divisive. And so is no solution: the atmosphere is being poisoned as colleges have to rely disproportionately on new contract-holders for flexible provision at weekends and during traditional holidays.

Mr Akker's election should have been the signal for more imaginative approaches. Acas should have been able to entice them forth. But it seems it was not to be. The CEF has contrived to stay with the conciliation process while the Natfhe leadership has not and an Acas-brokered settlement with the ATL will be difficult to ignore. Natfhe could be in terminal trouble unless Mr Akker, true to his manifesto, can appeal successfully to his rank-and-file members at this weekend's conference in Torquay for a new mandate to pursue, at this eleventh hour, a national agreement - with all the compromises that implies.

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