RANK-and-file members of Britain's largest lecturers' union will be urged by their general secretary to call off strike plans at an emergency conference over pay and conditions on February 27.
The significance of the date will not be lost on the membership of NATFHE since it is the eve of the start of the seventh year of its contracts dispute with management.
Paul Mackney, NATFHE general secretary, is likely to clash at the conference with a hostile and sizeable minority who have refused new contracts and have received virtually no pay rise since colleges left local authority control. But he fears that industrial action will prevent the union having any say in the Government's FE expansion plans.
The union's FE conference last October rejected a peace deal brokered by a working group from the Association of Colleges (AOC) and NATFHE. While it offered considerable protection against victimisation and bullying, it also allowed for a 27-hour teaching week. The members had demanded a 24-hour limit and so conference called for a ballot on national action if the differences could not be resolved.
But, since the conference and ballot, the Education Secretary David Blunkett has pledged a pound;725 million two-year expansion package - rising to pound;1 billion if possible expansion of HE in FE is included.
Overtures from ministers and top civil servants to Mr Mackney have made it clear they want NATFHE actively involved in the deal.
Mr Mackney said: "We have a stark choice. If we cannot get any further on hours, we can ask to have this resolved locally - coming back on the national framework in future years - and move onto the new agenda. Or we can say we've not got what we want on hours and move to industrial action."
While 57 per cent of those who voted in a ballot after the October conference were against the agreement, only 10,000 had responded.
As NATFHEhas 33,000 members that meant only, 15 per cent had backed industrial action.
Mr Mackney said: "I don't think we have the basis for an industrial action strategy. Of course there are different views. Rank and file think we should move to industrial action but that would sideline us on how the Government spends the money it is bringing forward."
The Government's desire to sharpen up the workforce and give lecturers a fairer deal is illustrated in the tone of the letters to NATFHE and the AOC from ministers and senior civil servants, and from the involvement of Tony Blair's policy unit in looking for options such as a new grade of super lecturer for the 450 colleges.
Mr Mackney is therefore calling for new levels of co-operation with the employers, joint working parties to address questions of a national pay structure and staff development and to lobby the Government for a new deal.
If the AOC does not co-operate, the union will make its own appeal to the Government.
In pressing for improved staff development, he will strike a chord with the vast majority of the membership who believe the failure to create a professional structure for FE lecturers, linked to national salary scales, has trapped many on low-pay bands arbitrarily decided by individual college managements.
Many of these lecturers are eager to move up - or out of FE - but cannot because of their lack of qualified teacher status. Proposals to raise the status and qualifications of FE teachers, revealed in The TES last week provoked an overwhelming response from lecturers (see below).
They would jump at opportunities created by the new Further Education National Training Organisation qualifications to switch from colleges to schools where, many said, they would be up to pound;5,000 a year better off.