Further education delegates dominated the debate at the Scarborough conference last weekend when they demanded the repeal of all Tory government anti-union legislation and national executive backing to defy the law.
This has put the union on a collision course with the new Labour Government and is in direct conflict with the wishes of the executive and higher education delegates, who condemned what they said was "a challenge to the future viability of the union".
Mick Barr, a West Midlands delegate who moved the motion backing illegal action, said it was not an automatic call to defy the law. "It is about trade unionism and how we fight to defend members who are victimised."
Grace Everson, from Anglia region, said: "Employers have demonstrated time and time again that if there is the slightest doubt in the legality of our procedures they are ready to take us to court."
Executive members and delegates opposing the motion said it would undermine efforts to prevent members leaving, with "a trickle of members turning into a haemorrhage". And they warned that the union's entire assets would be put at risk of sequestration.
Alan John from the national executive committee, said: "Each action will bring damages of Pounds 120,000. Further damages for contempt of court are unlimited. And that is for every single institution taking part." It was a Pyrrhic victory, he said.
Moira Carr, vice-president-elect, berated delegates for throwing away an agenda for action with other unions and challenged the right of delegates to sanction illegal action on behalf of the 70,000 members. "I ask for a referendum of all the members."
A paper to the executive, drawn up by the president, Kate Heasman, before conference, shows that in the event of losing the challenge a referendum of all members could be a way out. The paper suggested that although she had grave reservations about the use of referenda, in this case, a full ballot of the members might be the way to resolve the conflict within the membership.