The surprise 'early retirement' of NATFHE's general secretary John Akker has sparked protests and left the executive to face the music at the union's conference this weekend
The biggest college lecturers' union NATFHE may not be wet politically but that does not stop it leaking like a sieve.
Within hours of The TES revelation that the general secretary John Akker had been suspended - and he has since retired with a pay-off understood to be pound;73,000 - the FE Focus newsdesk answerphone was crammed with calls from supporters and dissenters.
Whole branches have condemned the national executive's failure to consult the membership first; they are demanding Mr Akker's reinstatement and they want a full report published at conference and cross-examination of those responsible.
Some have raised the possibility of trying to drag Baroness Blackstone, minister of state for education and employment, into the row, as she is due to speak at the NATFHE conference.
John Pennel, secretary of Wirral Metropolitan branch, said: "Branches are shocked at the speed with which it happened and the total lack of democracy within the leadership."
The Withnes Lane site and branch of the huge college is facing closure because of cuts over which local MP Angela Eagle is seeking a ministerial review. "John Akker is the only one to support us and any delegation to Blunkett is going to include him," Mr Pennel pledged.
What will alarm "ordinary" members most - on the eve of probably the most historically significant annual general meeting in Scarborough - is the consistency of the claims made for and against the man with the most poisoned chalice in the Labour movement.
Even bitter enemies, who have no personal regrets over his removal, are angry at the cavalier actions of the executive. Elected by the members and deposed by the executive, he is the third general secretary in seven years to go, under Thatcherite legislation to democratise the union. The irony is not lost.
"Akker is not the issue," said a branch chair who is glad to see the back of him. "A union at war with itself is powerless to shape destiny for its members. And who among the rank and file is content with the pay and conditions now enjoyed nationally?" Tom Jolliffe, national executive member and regional secretary for the South-west said: "It is quite unacceptable for NATFHE members to read that their elected general secretary has been suspended for failing to provide a report and then hear that he has retired. This is the kind of coercive practice that we condemn in colleges and universities."
One London lecturer in the throes of industrial action summed up the feelings: "What strikes me is the lack of leadership over the past three crucial years. NATFHE, since I have been in it, has been riven by such political divisions at the top that nothing seems to get done. It's different on the ground and it's that which makes the union worth joining."
Mr Akker's downfall was partly due to his attempts to modernise NATFHE along Blairite lines. For old Labour and the far left he was the enemy; for new Labour, not radical enough.
Certainly Mr Akker forged close links with Mr Blair's new Labour party. He was called to meet deputy leader John Prescott along with other union leaders in the early stages of the election campaign.
He was one of the close friends of Labour invited to the party's election celebration at the Festival Hall in London in the early hours of May 2.
And he was one of the first to meet new Education Secretary David Blunkett the following Sunday, barely hours after Cabinet posts had been announced.
His fatal flaw was in falling foul of the union's establishment committee, the overseer of policy in action. Staff who have crossed committee members say it assumes an authority superior to either the executive or national conference. It was this committee which sealed Mr Akker's fate.
One full-time official said: "The committee is like something from 1917. They have absolute power."
The way the dispute was handled has also created unease. Three people were chiefly involved: Jean Cooke, chair of the membership and organisation committee, Moira Carr, vice-chair and Shan Maidment, vice-chair. Shan Maidment is chair of the establishment committee and the vice-chair is Jean Cooke.
Together they form a powerful triumvirate.
Jean Cooke sought to run in the election which Mr Akker subsequently won, but her nomination paper was flawed and she was unable to stand.
The latest bid was at least the fifth attempt to oust him from office. His reasons for accepting the call for him to stand down last Thursday are not hard to see. It is understood that he has been offered 18 months' severance, on his salary of pound;49,000. Were he to win an industrial tribunal, he could only hope for a maximum court settlement of pound;11,500 and no right to re-instatement.
This is ironically the result of another decisive piece of Thatcherite employment legislation, condemned by the NATFHE and the trade union movement at the time.
Rules and regulations which determine the way NATFHE is run were this week described as "Byzantine" by one trade union leader. "If you were the permanent secretary to the Cabinet, you could not interpret them. It is Byzantine in terms of practices and procedures required of staff, and the arguments are very tight indeed." he told The TES.
Two years running, full-time staff have walked out of national conference. Two years ago, they insisted: "Strike action against our employers is the only course of action left to us by which we can protect ourselves."
Leaders of other unions are appalled. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers and Association of College Management claim between them to have taken 5,000 members from NATFHE since incorporation, and predict more defections. But this does not compensate for what could scupper attempts to influence the new Government, say the other unions.
Stephen Byers, when shadow training spokesman, was reported as saying a Labour government would distance itself from the unions. Commented one union official: "We know Tony Blair is looking for a scapegoat. John Akker may just be the sacrificial lamb he needs."
The decision of Baroness Blackstone to back out of the annual conference suggests the process has already begun.
Other unions say they have still not had a clear explanation of events. Dave Triesmann, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers said: "The only thing I have been told formally in a letter from their president Kate Heasman is that John Akker has retired early.
"I hope it soon becomes clear who has the authority to speak for NATFHE. We want to see an orderly process towards a single UK professional union."
Before being suspended, Mr Akker spoke at length to The TES - for his pre-conference interview piece - about what he expected of the new epoch.
"I have a vision of a single education union speaking for all, whether teaching in schools, colleges or universities. It should include the NUT, ATL and AUT," he said. "People in education are not revolutionaries. They might march occasionally under the Socialist Workers' banner against injustice, but they are ordinary people wanting a decent education service from cradle to grave.
"We should be attacking the wider disparities. I'm talking for instance about Oxford and Cambridge giving up some of their wealth for the greater good - inherited wealth of pound;400 million for some colleges. That should offer an exciting agenda for a Labour government."
He had just about finished his report on the union structure and finance when he was interviewed but could give no details before it went to the executive and was cleared for publication.
Some say the report was "rubbish", others that it attacked sacred cows, calling for cuts to education policy and more spending on industrial relations affecting members. He was said to want cuts to international affairs and "junketing" around Europe, and the appointment of a regional official with special responsibility for part-time staff - a crucial issue as the loss of full-time jobs and the rise in part-time posts has exacerbated the union's membership and cash crises.
If conference, which is supposed to rule supreme, wanted him back or, at least, called to account personally by delegates, it is too late. He cannot stand for re-election, having stepped down within the five-year term.
But callers to The TES set out a shopping list of demands. For many their decision to stay or defect to the AUT, ATL or Unison will depend on the behaviour of the executive and delegates this weekend.
NATFHE GENERAL SECRETARIES
1969-77 Tom Driver
1976 Natfhe formed from Association of Teachers in Technical Institutions and Association of Teachers in Colleges and Departments of Education
1977 Stan Broadbridge (dies November 1978)
1979 Peter Dawson (NATFHE negotiating secretary ) elected by national council
1989 Geoff Woolf (NATFHE, president) elected in membership ballot under new legislation.
1994 John Akker (deputy general secretary, AUT) elected.
Since the incorporation of FE colleges in 1993 it is estimated that 10,000 lecturing posts have been lost through redundancy. It is anticipated that 1,500-2,000 will be lost this year if projected 'efficiency gains' are implemented.