The chairman of the college lecturers' national negotiating team resigned this week after his union, Natfhe, refused to agree to conciliation with employers.
Peter Latham, like Natfhe general secretary John Akker, argued that meeting the College Employers' Forum at Acas was the best way towards resolving the two-year contracts dispute.
But the vote against them on Natfhe's special national executive committee, 24 to 16, showed the extent of the split between conciliators and the hard-liners who are now likely to take over the national negotiating chair.
Mistrust of CEF chief executive Roger Ward was a main reason why Natfhe went further than Arthur Scargill's NUM to become the first TUC-affiliated union to reject Acas.
"I resigned because it became apparent to me I do not command a majority on my committee," said Mr Latham. "Unless we negotiate something to stop it, whether nationally or locally, but preferably nationally, I fear members will be persuaded, brow-beaten or threatened into signing the new contract," he said. "My view has always been we should have to negotiate a settlement where we will have to make concessions in order to prevent an inexorable slide towards the CEF contract."
Natfhe has lost hundreds of members in further education in the last year and the union, not to mention the college sector, faces further disarray if feuding over its approach to the dispute continues.
Mr Latham's predecessor as chairman, Tom Jolliffe, resigned a year ago in protest at the twin-track approach. Mr Jolliffe, who remains a national negotiator, is starting a campaign for a ballot of all Natfhe members on whether they should go to Acas. "The members cannot be expected to go on and on with it while all the time our position is being eroded."
The first meeting at Acas between the CEF and representatives from the minority FE union, ATL, is on Tuesday. Natfhe is calling for co-ordinated local strikes on March 8 as part of a week of action against the new contracts. National delegates from Natfhe's FE sector colleges meet tomorrow to debate a series of emergency motions about the contracts dispute, including calls for indefinite strike action.