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Reinstate Cricklade martyrs;FE Focus;Opinion

LIKE other NATFHE members up and down the country I have recently had the unnerving experience of being invited to vote for a martyr. To be fair he didn't actually use the word in his election address to become vice-president of the largest lecturers' union, but that in effect is what he is.

Andrew Murray is currently employed as a lecturer in business at Cricklade College in Andover. A union activist and national negotiator, he has in recent years been involved in exposing a variety of murky goings on at other colleges in his region - in particular pointing up the shortcomings of management in two of the new universities on the south coast. No doubt he was aware that this was not the best way of making friends and influencing people in high places.

When he tried something similar at his own college - allegations of management malpractice are currently under investigation - his employers suddenly decided that he was surplus to requirements. He and two other lecturers in the same department were given their notice.

Of course the college itself puts a rather different spin on the sackings. They say they were part of a restructuring and that Murray's whistle-blowing and general trade union work was merely coincidental. Now I am sure that there are some people who believe this, though John Monks, TUC General Secretary and union moderate, is not one of them. Murray, he declares, "has been unjustly victimised for his trade union work". Others of like mind have launched a high-profile campaign in an effort to get his job back.

Cricklade College is in Hampshire, one county along from Dorset and the village of Tolpuddle where trade union martyrs of another age were also found to be "surplus to requirements". As of yet Murray's employers haven't attempted to ship him in chains to Australia. But given the sorry state of further education's labour relations since incorporation it's a fair bet that there's an employer out there somewhere who'd like to try.

Generally, the strong wine of post-incorporation "freedom" in colleges quite clearly went to the heads of some principals. Encouraged to think of their enterprises as businesses, they seemed to think that meant adopting the mind-set of the sweatshop overlord. Too many colleges have been transformed from the liberal institutions of learning they once were into places where illiberality is the norm and conformity a virtual obligation; where to keep your job you keep your counsel.

For such principals (invariably chief executives), just sacking a union activist or two has not been enough. New refinements have been developed to add to the pain and shame of the dismissal. Clearing of the desk is one such ritual humiliation: the shorter the time given for this to be accomplished, the larger the ego of the relevant principal is assumed to be. And then of course if he wants to signal that his is a really, really big one, then he can always throw in an "escorted from the premises" for good measure. This tactic ensures a public dimension to the act - shackles and a ball and chain being optional rather than an actual requirement.

If you can't sack the man (or woman) who leads the workers, then there's always the option of de-recognising their organisation. This involves shutting your eyes and stopping up your ears and asserting loudly that the union no longer exists. Any lecturers found gathered together for purposes other than singing the corporation song can then safely be assumed to be hostile and dealt with accordingly - see "desk clearing" and "premises: ejection from" above.

But wait, I hear you say, isn't this stuff all out of date now? Hasn't a new day dawned over the battleground that was for so long labour relations in FE? Haven't we had an armistice declared that promises to end the six years of attrition between lecturers and their employers over the seemingly intractable issues of contracts and pay? And even if the message hasn't permeated to all corners of the globe yet, aren't we now all pals together and jolly good company?

Well, maybe. Certainly some of us would like to think so. Because if not - if there is to be no general improvement in the icy climate of labour relations of recent years - what have we as union members really gained from ending the years of acrimony and dispute?

With the best will in the world, it's hard to see much progress on the key issues of hours and conditions. So can at least Andrew Murray and the other Cricklade martyrs have their jobs back please?

Stephen Jones is a lecturer in a south London college

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