For a decade as deputy general secretary he was sidelined by his former boss, Doug McAvoy. But despite being offered lucrative and influential jobs, he says he was never once tempted to leave the organisation he loves, the National Union of Teachers.
Instead, he has worked steadily making friends within the union and forging alliances with officials from other teacher organisations and the Trades Union Congress.
After emerging as victor in the long, gruelling election campaign for general secretary, many expected a night of the long knives, with allies of his former boss being shown the door. But that is not the way he works.
He has acted as a conciliator at the union's Hamilton House headquarters and has worked within the executive to end the faction-fighting that has dogged the NUT for years. So far, he has honoured his pledge to make the most of talent from all political wings of the union.
This is why he believes this Easter's conference in Gateshead will be less confrontational than it has been for a long time. "The real benefit will be seen in two to three years' time," he said. "But, I think I have already developed a more stable and united NUT."
The 53-year-old Liverpudlian (and Everton supporter) was educated at a comprehensive and cut his professional teeth teaching humanities at Shorefields, Toxteth, in the city, in 1975.
Four years later he moved to Broughton high, near Preston, where he became head of economics and business studies. His wife Mary is a primary teacher and they have two children in their 20s. Straight after the conference he will be heading to Edinburgh to visit his first grandchild, Robbie. Then he will be back on the road, this time to Brighton to address the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. He will be talking about a subject very close to his heart, global education.
From under the cuffs of his smart suit, a "Make Poverty History" wristband can be spied. "It is tragic that so many children are denied education," he said.
"I have seen the horrendous lengths that some have had to go in places such as Ethiopia and South Africa to get any sort of learning. And I think the target of getting 100 million children out of poverty by 2015 has to be achievable."
While he is hoping that he will be spared the usual Easter headlines that have done little to portray his union in a good light ("Sometimes we have behaved as if we are Tom and Jerry, knocking chunks out of each other," he admitted), he will still have to fight many familiar battles with delegates. And the NUT conference would not be the NUT conference without calls for strikes.
He will have his first formal meeting with Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, after Easter. His ambition may be to get the union back in a position where the Government listens to it, but not at any price. And his aim to get a re-negotiated workforce deal that his members can accept may be made easier by the National Association of Head Teachers' decision to withdraw from the agreement.
With virtually every primary head in England and Wales and the majority of the sector's teachers unrepresented in the talks over workforce changes, the current deal will be untenable, he says.