THE campaign for pay parity with schoolteachers has made lecturers' union Natfhe stronger and more united, delegates heard at its annual conference in Blackpool.
Barry Lovejoy, head of Natfhe's colleges department, said members had increased their credibility with managers by demonstrating a willingness to strike.
With the deadline for pay parity by September 2004 looming fast, the unions, which also include Unison, representing support staff, and the Association of College Management, are locked in talks with the Association of Colleges which could result in a pay deal being offered on July 16.
Mr Lovejoy said: "This is the first time for years that we are talking about this without also talking about industrial action.
"The pay campaign has led to the rejuvenation of this union. Industrial action is no longer a debatable point. We can deliver, despite the obstacles of anti- trade union laws.
"The job now is to make sure at least 70 per cent of the pound;1.2 billion (extra FE funding announced by Education Secretary Charles Clarke,) goes towards pay.
"The tension is exaggerated by a semi-privatised system in FE which needs to be addressed. There is nothing new or modern about performance-related pay. We have seen a glimpse of that future. It does not work and we are not going to have it."
While both sides in the negotiations remain publicly optimistic, scepticism remains among many delegates about the value of doing business with the AoC.
There is growing disquiet about what, for some colleges, has proved in previous years to be a futile process because the AoC, representing college corporations, is unable to reach binding settlements on their behalf.
Natfhe's own research suggests 25 per cent of colleges failed to implement the 2002 pay deal, involving a 3.5 per cent increase, with 0.5 per cent to follow.
The deal saw newly-qualified lecturers earning the same starting salaries as schoolteachers. But the independence of colleges, brought about by the release from local education authority control in 1993, allows them to go further than simply refusing to implement nationally-agreed pay deals.
In some cases, they have attempted to negotiate their own local deals, which Natfhe says could threaten the fabric of national bargaining.
The union is remaining vigilant against colleges which show signs of going down this road. It says attempts by Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College to offer staff a pound;250-a-head increase are a direct attack on national pay bargaining which, if successful, could lead to more colleges going their own way - further undermining the unionAoC bargaining process.
The college, the fourth-largest in the country, will be asked by Natfhe to withdraw the offer.
As the deadline for parity looms, there is growing uncertainty about whether the union will be able to make up the 12 per cent gap with schools.
But parity with schoolteachers looks more likely across the border in Wales, where an agreed pay increase from April 1 this year gave management spine staff 3 per cent, main grade lecturers 4.6 per cent and hourly-paid staff 4.7 per cent.
The assembly last year provided pound;9 million extra for FE pay and talks have begun about achieving parity with schoolteachers in 2004.