The mood of delegates at the lecturers' union's further education sector conference in London last weekend was far less militant than in any year since colleges left local authority control.
Local strikes continue to dog the sector. The latest this week was an all-out strike at Hackney Community College over threats of up to 56 job losses to meet a Pounds 1 million budget shortfall.
But the spectre of past defeats, when calls for national action were crushed by the courts, loomed large at NATFHE's conference. There was also a strong desire to act on recent assurances from the Association of Colleges that a mutually-agreed settlement on pay and conditions was now possible.
The lecturers had already signalled a willingness to be more flexible in their pay and conditions claim this year. They want a "substantial" increase to catch up with school teachers, a national framework on service conditions and talks on reversing the casualisation of the workforce.
However, Paul Mackney, the new NATFHE general secretary issued a strong warning to the AOC: "I hope we can reach a settlement because there is nothing I like better than organising industrial action."
Calls for a national ballot and union backing to defy the law if necessarily were defeated overwhelmingly by the 100 delegates. A national ballot would send the most powerful message to employers. But a single employer can scupper the entire dispute with the backing of the courts.
Barry Lovejoy, NATFHE chair of the action committee, said: "Vote branch by branch for national action. If any one employer goes to court successfully, we can pull the branch out and it won't stop the others."
If this failed to persuade the employers back to negotiate action would be escalated, the conference agreed.