Lecturers' union Natfhe inadvertently published confidential papers on merger talks with the Association of University Teachers on its website late last week. The documents have since been withdrawn.
The papers, seen by The Times Higher before their removal, showed the give-and-take nature of the negotiations and contained an admission from Paul Mackney, Natfhe's general secretary, that his union had little choice but to seek merger in the medium to longer term, or face decline.
They revealed that Natfhe lost the argument for regional representation but won the case for reserved seats for women and minorities on the new union's national executive committee.
Natfhe regional secretaries are furious. "We feel the negotiators spent a great deal of time ensuring reserved seats for women at the expense of regional representation," said Cliff Snaith, Natfhe regional secretary for London.
Many further education colleges had small Natfhe branches and relied on the level of regional representation to ensure that they could send delegates and motions to conference, he said.
Under the proposals, branches with fewer than 100 members will be amalgamated for conference purposes. "In London, only two further education colleges will be anywhere near being big enough to send delegates," said Mr Snaith. "What will happen to the rest is unclear."
The papers, reports of meetings in December and mid-January, and a letter from Mr Mackney to regional secretaries, show merger talks to be moving rapidly.
The letter from Mr Mackney seeks to sell the compromise to worried regional secretaries. "The AUT has no traditions of regions, and securing a regional element in the rulebook of the new union, together with associated and firm guarantees, was a major achievement," he says.
Sally Hunt, AUT general secretary, said: "In both unions regional representatives play a key role in campaigning and organising branches, but in Natfhe they also play a part in sending delegates and motions to national conference.
"In the AUT, local associations alone participate in AUT council. We sought a compromise that makes the best of both traditions."
Mr Mackney was quick to claim victory on the "equality agenda". "The new union's proposed equality structure draws heavily on Natfhe, rather than the AUT traditions, and this was not easily achieved," he says in the letter. There are nine reserved seats on the NEC, six for women.
In contrast to the official line that this is a merger born of strength rather than crisis, Mr Mackney's letter contains a series of warnings.
"The problems that beset us in the Nineties arising from a small membership base in the face of a radically changed employer environment and member demands, have not gone away," he says.
"Any sober assessment of our current position must conclude that standing still is not an option for the medium or long term - rather, it is a recipe for decline."firstname.lastname@example.org
NATFHE-AUT ACCORD AND DISCORD
Report of the fifth meeting of the negotiating group held at Egmont House on January 14-15, 2005
* Size of conference: overall size of 500 or as near as possible. Branches with fewer than 100 members subject to amalgamation. Ratio of delegates to members one to 400 or part thereof
* Membership: AUT worried that retired and attached members, who have full voting rights, may be disenfranchised by rules of the new union. Issue referred to working party
* Subs: two-year delay on increase for existing members
* Reserved seats: Natfhe wanted identified seats for women on new NEC but AUT said undifferentiated national seats had been a key selling point to its executive. Agreed one NEC set per 5,000 members, with nine reserved seats
* General secretary: AUT wants the new leader of the merged union in place before the first congress in April/May 2007, earlier than the 2008 date envisaged. Issue to be considered further.