LECTURERS' union Natfhe this week suspended its general secretary John Akker pending a disciplinary hearing into claims of incompetence.
Mr Akker was suspended from his Pounds 58,000 a-year job on Tuesday following a vote of no confidence by the national executive's establishment subcommittee.
Mr Akker is said to be doubly angry because the executive has effectively gagged him by asking him not to make any public statements.
Mr Akker's representative Patrick Canavan said: "It is a completely outrageous way to treat the general secretary. They did not even show him the courtesy of discussing things with him first. We will be fighting this."
Mr Canavan, a full-time officer with the Manufacturing Science and Finance union, said that Mr Akker, who is three years into his five-year term of office, was offered a golden handshake package last week but the terms had changed subsequently.
Mr Canavan said: "We are exploring the possibility of legal action over this."
It is understood that the call for disciplinary proceedings against Mr Akker was sparked by his alleged failure to produce a staffing report. The union has had to cut costs as membership has declined. It is estimated that some 10,000 jobs have gone over recent years with many lecturer members taking early retirement.
There have been grumblings about Mr Akker in the past. Union insiders say that the underlying reason for the move could be political. The executive has a number of hard-line left-wing members and it is thought that some will stand for the post if Mr Akker goes.
One well-placed Natfhe source said: "John may or may not be up to the job but that is almost beside the point. There are many on the executive who want to be general secretary and there is a feeling that some of them have had it in for John for a long time."
Natfhe has a poor track record when it comes to general secretaries. Amid ugly infighting in 1989, the union became the first to use Conservative laws to oust the then general secretary Peter Dawson. His successor, Mr Akker's predecessor, Geoff Woolf, was voted out at the end of his five-year term.
This latest upset will do little to help the union's 65,000 further and higher education members. Many are on strike in a bid to stave off widespread job cuts forced by funding cuts to colleges and universities.
Another Natfhe source said: "It is quite incredible that, at a time when the sector is in turmoil and our members are fighting for their livelihoods and educational quality, the union leadership is engaged in unsavoury internecine squabbles."
Mr Akker is suspended on full pay. No date had been set, at the time of publication, for a disciplinary hearing. He is not expected to attend the union's national conference next week.
Non-union academics, page 5