Akker's three-year battle;FE Focus

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
John Akker was the surprise winner in the 1994 election for general secretary of NATFHE - and he did not go down well with some hard-line activists.

He was not one of them - literally, since he was the only candidate not from NATFHE's own ranks, but from a rival union, the Association of University Teachers. Moreover there was still a well of sympathy for the outgoing general secretary, Geoff Woolf.

Fresh from his election triumph, Mr Akker faced his first battle with his new employers even before he took up the job. What followed looks like a relentless campaign to undermine him and, eventually, get him to bite the bullet and take early retirement.

That battle was over his contract. He queried a number of points, as trades unionists are prone to do. "Accept in entirety or else," seemed to be the message emanating from HQ.

Then, the next year, came a complaint about his execution of his duties. Apparently he had taken a day's holiday when he should not have done. Or he had taken a day's holiday and not told anyone in advance. Or he had taken a day's holiday and just enjoyed himself. Or even that he had taken a day's holiday, and told people beforehand, and followed procedures, but still someone was unhappy.

There was amazement within NATFHE at the time that such a pedestrian matter should become the basis for a serious complaint against a general secretary. Mr Akker has had critics - and supporters - throughout his term of office, but this was the first time that people started to utter the word "vendetta".

Until that point, the alleged complaints about him had been staffroom stuff and bits of gossip on the FE picket grapevine, which had been repeated in the way that all those in authority are naturally and rightly criticised, but had not been widely aired.

Towards the end of 1995 Mr Akker was in trouble again, and this time the story was leaked to the national press. NATFHE is a politically independent union and has contacts with all the major parties. Mr Akker had apparently attended a meeting with other union leaders to discuss how they might support the Labour party in the then run-up to the general election. He was given a formal written warning, which would remain in force for a year. In an astonishing humiliation, he was told he would be subject to "remedial action" to be drawn up by the union.

And now to the present. The full story cannot be told as Mr Akker refuses to talk and NATFHE will only give a bare outline on the record. The two parties have signed a confidentiality agreement. "There was a confidentiality agreement but it was a mutual one. We do not intend to breach it," said Derek Betts, caretaker general secretary.

The union's evidence to the Nolan Committee on Public Standards said there were some matters that should remain confidential to protect individuals, or for commercial reasons. "Nonetheless NATFHE considers that undue claim of confidentiality is undemocratic, unhealthy and ultimately renders a governing body unaccountable."

NATFHE is a union which has campaigned against obfuscation, cover-ups, bullying of staff and breaches of rules.

It seems that Mr Akker has been disposed of because he argued about his contract, took a day's holiday to which he believed he was entitled, and wrote a report his members did not agree with. Sounds a little familiar.

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