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Crown of thorns for union's chosen one

Francis Beckett talks to John Akker, the man at the helm of the turbulent lecturers' union NATFHE

When John Akker ousted Geoff Woolf to take the reins of the lecturers' union NAFTHE he pledged: "I will be a fighting general secretary, fighting to ensure the success of this union, fighting to defend members and fighting for a decent education service."

NATFHE members may well judge his success as leader against this yardstick. A year after he got the job, there are signs of unease.

He has had bruising clashes with Roger Ward, leader of the Colleges' Employers' Forum, and the two men loathe each other. John responds to claims that Roger is a fine negotiator by saying: "The art of negotiation is coming to an agreement. I've not had any experience of reaching an agreement with the CEF."

Meanwhile Roger dismisses John saying with calculated contempt: "John is a very nice boy."

John has a good pedigree for a trade union official. An east London lad, he still speaks with an east London accent. He was educated at South West Essex Technical College in Walhamstow and at 16 he became a civil servant and was active in the Civil Service Clerical Association. He won a scholarship to the trade-union affiliated Ruskin College in 1964 when he was 22. He studied politics and economics at York University.

As an official for the local government officers' union NALGO he quickly rose to become deputy local government officer, negotiating pay for 400,000 staff.

Then in 1973 he became the Association of University Teachers' assistant general secretary and did the job for 21 years. Despite his long service, when Diana Warwick resigned as AUT general secretary, a majority of the executive wanted to bring in outsider David Triesman from NATFHE. John could have stood in an election, and perhaps beaten him - but he decided not to battle for the leadership.

He says this was because an election would have damaged the AUT. Some AUT insiders believe the real reason was that, if he lost, it would make his position as David's deputy thoroughly uncomfortable.

Instead he was elected general secretary at NATFHE, where David had once been crown prince and the resentment between the two has been a real obstacle to solving their dispute over territory. Two experienced union negotiators ought to be able to find a way of organising higher education without the recruitment war, but neither wishes to move first.

Many people think John is uncomfortable leading a union where the divisions are raw and sharp in a way that he never knew in the gentlemanly AUT. Others believe he has come home at NATFHE, which is the sort of place where working-class boys from Ruskin belong.

At NATFHE conference he refused to identify himself with any of the factions, laying himself open to accusations that he was sitting on the fence.

But he says: "NATFHE may have tensions and conflicts, but it has the potential for real influence. I like it when I go to the TUC and NATFHE is a major player in the Congress."

John says he is not worried about competition for members. "It is inevitable there will be competition. NATFHE has to earn its living in a competitive world, so it has to provide an excellent service to its members."

His critics claim that he failed his first test - to reach agreement with Roger Ward. Roger's version is that the two worked out a deal, but John failed to sell it to his executive. But Sue Berryman, NATFHE's FE negotiator, says: "Ward suddenly offered us a deal, 800 hours, which we might have had some prospect of carrying. But all the hawks in the CEF told him it would not do. It was Ward who failed to deliver, not Akker."

John says: "One of my first actions was to call off strikes in enrolment week, so we could sit down and talk to CEF. Unfortunately what Roger came up with, more than 1,000 hours with no contractual safeguards, there was no way the union could put their name to that. That is now in the past and the union is successfully negotiating local deals.

"The legacy of confrontation is very damaging for the sector. I see principals who don't mix with staff, don't go into senior common rooms, senior managers who have given 20 or 30 years to FE, who say they are not going to put themselves out on behalf of the colleges, because of the confrontation.

"There are extremists on both sides - colleges and staff - and it will take a long time for the bitterness to go away."

NATFHE has lost hundreds of members in further education in the past year, membership has fallen below 70,000. Members question John's ability to shape one of the most volatile unions in Britain. Some colleagues share the doubts.

They want a strong chief executive who can fight his staff's corner. They say John has not staked out his ground or fought his corner hard enough.

But they also wonder whether anyone can do this job anymore. The legislation which obliged unions to elect their general secretary every five years turned the top job in NATFHE into a bitterly-contested political one.

It would take an exceptionally skilled politician to impose his will on the union now. And would such a person want a job when all the precedents suggest that he or she would be thrown out in five years' time?

None of NATFHE's own top officials stood for the job. They know a bed of nails when they see one - and they recognise the bed that John now has to lie on.

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