A LEFT-WING faction of negotiators for the biggest college lecturers' union is pushing to derail peace talks with the employers and press ahead with their strike plans.
The row is set to ignite at a national conference of NATFHE's further education members next month, on the eve of the seventh year of the dispute over pay and conditions. The conference in London follows branch and regional meetings to discuss tactics after lecturers rejected a draft agreement drawn up by the unions and employers on pay and conditions.
The minority group from the NATFHE team this week issued its own report for all branches, opposing the peace deal currently being brokered by general secretary Paul Mackney.
They have accused Mr Mackney of "cosying-up" to management and of attempting to undermine the confidence of rank-and-file members over the effectiveness of national strike action.
Union head-office staff are currently consulting branches on a five-point plan to end the dispute. They want agreement from the employers on a national framework for "good practice" over a wide range of issues including recruitment and dismissal, and the prevention of bullying and intimidation of staff.
They are also seeking to establish joint working parties with the Association of Colleges on issues such as the use of part-time and agency staff, a deal to "preserve the current status of local agreements where all parties are content with them" and a continuation of national pay negotiations.
But four national negotiators - Angela McConnell, Andrew Murray, Jefny Ashcroft and Andrew Price - argue that national pay bargaining has not existed since incorporation, as there is no compulsion on individual colleges to pay agreed annual rises.
The biggest stumbling block, however, continues to be the failure of employers to agree to include limits on working and teaching hours. The range in the draft agreement (22 to 27 teaching hours a week) is unacceptable to NATFHE members.
The minority group is therefore pressing for a ballot on strike action. Their report to branches follows an interview in The TES with Mr Mackney where he announced that it was time to do a deal. He insisted that "industrial action would sideline NATFHE on how the Government spends the money (pound;725m over two years) it is bringing forward for FE."
All sides of management and NATFHE in the dispute agree that resolution of the differences will be no easy task. An AOC survey among colleges showed that while 73 per cent of respondents backed continuing negotiations, 63 per cent wanted no change to the draft agreement. This result, from a 60 per cent response, underlines the desire of employers to keep the issue of teaching hours outside the main framework of negotiations.
In the minority report, the negotiators argue that it is pointless to continue talks "with the aim of achieving a National Framework Agreement containing no figures on weekly or annual contact hours, or on the length of the working week, or on holidays, with the expectation that these matters would be determined by college by college bargaining."
Mr Mackney has said he was expecting flak from the Left but did not believe, from the earlier ballots that there was a mandate for strike action.