Natfhe conference has committed itself to defending illegal industrial action, a move that could lead to union funds being seized.
Delegates at lecturers' union Natfhe's annual conference in Scarborough put the union on a collision course with the new Government. They voted to support Natfhe branches and members of other trade unions if they take action which breaks the law.
The motion also calls on the Government to repeal all Conservative anti-trade union legislation and for the Trades Union Congress to lead a campaign against anti-trade union laws.
Mick Barr, of the West Midlands region, moved the motion. Mr Barr said: "This motion is not meant to celebrate breaking the law. This motion is about trade unionism and about how we fight to defend members."
Delegates threw out a national executive council amendment of the motion. This had called on conference to reject actions which would lead to the sequestration of Natfhe funds. Under current trade union law a union risks sequestration of its funds if it engages in illegal industrial action.
Undaunted by its amendment defeat, the national executive acted swiftly to clarify the position. President Kate Heasman said that it would be "extremely unfortunate" if the conference and the NEC were in conflict over illegal action. Ms Heasman added that union Natfhe rules forbid the NEC from defying the law and that the issue may have to be resolved by a referendum.
Support for illegal action clearly came from the more militant further education delegates. The separate higher education sector conference expressed its "utmost dismay" at the conference vote on illegal action.
An emergency motion called upon the NEC to submit the matter to a ballot of the entire membership.
The new militancy reflects lecturers' anger and frustration at the widespread redundancies in colleges and new universities.
Fighting talk was backed by practical support for those in dispute. The strike pay of lecturers at London's Southwark College was increased to Pounds 50 a day. An emergency levy on all Natfhe members to pay for the increased strike pay if necessary was approved.
A further motion called on the NEC to lead a delegation of striking Southwark staff to see education secretary David Blunkett as soon as practicable.