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Reforms on the cards for union

A shrunken NATFHE national conference this week set down a new, two-pronged strategy to secure reform of the cash-strapped union.

The conference, cropped in size and length this year to the fury of the far Left, agreed to national executive proposals for a further conference in November to hammer out permanent changes.

And, in a closely fought debate, delegates also voted to create a new commission for democracy, made up of elected representatives from each of its 14 regions, to examine NATFHE's structures and financial arrangements.

The current state of the union was described by one NEC member as "like the last days of the Russian empire", bedevilled by "a huge financial crisis and a giant stumbling bureaucracy, with everybody trying to assassinate the Czar and more than one candidate for the mad monk".

The reduced scale of the conference, slimmed to fewer than 200 delegates meeting over two days in NATFHE's London headquarters, had prompted fears among some union staff of a volatile "pressure-cooker" atmosphere. In the event, with much of the debate on internal democracy on hold, progress was smoother than expected.

A rumoured attempt by the far Left to censure general secretary John Akker, recently disciplined for holding a meeting with the Labour party, failed to materialise, with delegates fearing it would cause a distraction from pay and redundancy issues.

Meeting in closed session, the FE sector conference moved to reject any shift from national pay bargaining - for the time being.

Suggestions that the union, meeting college employers next week to reconvene stalled pay talks, could move to local negotiations have infuriated many members, though some privately concede that the step could still prove inevitable.

If the June 10 talks win no new deal from the employers, whose initial offer of 2.1 per cent to all non-Silver Book contract holders was rejected by NATFHE, the union has pledged to ballot members for a nationally co-ordinated one-day strike on October 8.

But if the dispute were to escalate, the way has been left open for individual branches to negotiate locally in the event of an employer seeking to settle.

Amid predictions that college redundancies this year will exceed the 1, 500 estimated by NATFHE, an emergency motion reinforced the union's pledge to consider action "up to and including" an indefinite national strike.

Four colleges proposing exceptionally high redundancies are to be made priority cases by the union. They are Northampton; Mackworth College, Derby; Soundwell College, Bristol and the College of North East London.

Calls from the far Left for a compulsory strike fund levy and for full strike pay for all were rejected, though the union agreed to transfer a further Pounds 250,000 into the fund and launch a national campaign for a voluntary levy.

At present, NATFHE has just Pounds 58,000 in its strike pay fund, reflecting the cash shortages which, together with dissatisfaction with the way the top-heavy union serves its members on the ground, are behind calls for structural reform.

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