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Left wins demand for pay ballot

Ian Nash reports from the annual conference of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education. College lecturers are demanding a ballot for national action against employers even though their union general secretary insisted that "it could not be implemented for financial, practical and legal reasons".

Delegates to the annual conference of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education backed the call from the hard Left three to one, in pursuit of the coming pay claim.

Most colleges have refused to pay last year's 2.9 per cent to lecturers who failed to sign new and more flexible contracts which they say are needed since incorporation.

The mood of militancy was heightened by the deal on contracts last week between the Colleges' Employers' Forum and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which has only 2,300 members in FE colleges. NATFHE conference delegates unanimously backed their negotiators' decision to reject the deal.

Under the deal with the ATL, annual teaching hours rise to 886 hours over two years and lecturers will be entitled to 37 days holiday. Its impact will be monitored by the conciliation service, ACAS, which brokered the deal.

In rejecting what delegates called "a poisoned chalice", the NATFHE conference demanded tougher action on a timescale that officials insisted was unworkable. Debate became so acrimonious that a personal attack from one delegate provoked a walk-out of officials, bringing conference to a halt and losing an entire debating session.

The question of the ballot remained unresolved at the end of the conference. John Akker, the general secretary, said: "We are asking branches to meet as soon as possible. An announcement on the ballot will be made when the pay claim is submitted later this month."

However, the Left is resolute in seeing through the decision made by the FE sector members at the conference in Torquay.

Executive member Jefney Ashcroft said: "The vote for national action was taken and quite clearly won. Officers say it is impossible. But they have been given instruction by conference and must find ways of implementing it."

Delegates wanted a national ballot by the end of June for all-out action in the September enrolment week. It is a massive undertaking and with most branches on holiday and a very high turnover of staff in August and September, there is little room for manoeuvre if the union is not to fall foul of employment legislation.

The union has already tripped up on the 1993 Employment Act, which requires a detailed list of those balloted for action to be given to the employers. Its failure to do so in the action against Blackpool and the Fylde College last year led to a High Court defeat and a precedent for all unions contemplating action.

Ministers had insisted that this was not the intention of the Act, though their opponents in the House of Lords disagreed. Even in setting the precedent, two of the three judges said they reached the decision "not without a degree of unease." In other words, they feltthat members should be not be deterred by excessive bureaucracy from pursuing justified grievances.

If an aggregate national ballot proves unworkable, then the union may be able to get part-way round it by calling out in September those branches with "live" ballots on the dispute over last year's pay claim. Branches without live ballots have been instructed by conference to rectify this.

But the past year of local negotiations following the collapse of national talks did not producethe hoped-for breakthrough.

Conference delegates were buoyed up by some partial victories, including a 10-fold increase in redundancy payments to lecturers at Southwark College. But very few local deals on contracts were done and they appear to have given very little leverage for a return to national talks.

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