'I didn't want to start a union'

10th June 2005 at 01:00
Stephen Jones meets the leader of FE's smallest union - who has now been battling in court for 10 years for the return of lecturers' former rights

The headquarters of English education's smallest, and newest, trade union bears a striking resemblance to the back room of a suburban semi-detached house in Southend-on-Sea. But that's hardly surprising, given that the HQ of Leaf - or the Lecturers' Employment Advice and Action Fellowship - doubles as the home of its leader.

The semi, situated amongst barbered lawns and a stone's throw from the chilly waters of the Thames Estuary, is owned by David Evans, the union's general secretary and sole paid official.

Not for him the swanky London HQ occupied by FE's big hitter in the union world, Natfhe. But then Natfhe represents 68,000 members compared with Leaf's rather more modest 410. That is the figure in the latest available registration Leaf was legally obliged to complete under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

The union came into being 10 years ago as the result of a remarkable - some might say remarkably ambitious - law case. In essence, the case set out to overthrow the then Tory government's decision to transfer lecturers'

contracts of employment from the local authorities to around 400 newly independent colleges.

That case, which has since taken on truly Dickensian proportions, continues today. Having exhausted the legal possibilities in Britain, Leaf took the fight to Europe. Thrown out by the European Commission and European Ombudsman, it has now moved on to the petitions committee of the European Parliament.

And after that? Leaf's website is upbeat about the case's ultimate chances of success, declaring that, "We remain completely confident of the correctness of our stance" and "We're not there yet but we're getting there".

David Evans, however, is perhaps a little less bullish these days about the prospects for final victory. If the petitions committee fails to deliver, he concedes that there will be nowhere left to go.

He now wonders if the European courts ever really had the bottle to take a decision that would have huge financial implications for the UK Government.

"Just think about it," he says. "There were 100,000 staff throughout the system, each losing anything up to four weeks paid holiday, not to mention the extra seven or eight hours class contact per week. Over the years, that represents billions of pounds. There was no way they would let us win it." But if he's less sure now about the outcome of the legal battle, Mr Evans has no regrets at all about fighting for the rights of lecturers when others - and it's Natfhe he has particularly in mind - were standing aside and doing nothing.

We are talking here about the fabled Silver Book - the old lecturers' Bible which once held sway across the country and enshrined their hard-won terms and conditions. That went out of the window in 1993 when colleges became independent, leaving each institution free to determine its own local contract of employment.

"I was very angry about it. Very angry indeed. But it was no good just being angry," said Mr Evans.

His anger, and the anger of others like him, resulted in the establishment of the Havering Legal Fund, named for the outer London college where he was then working as a lecturer in human and industrial relations. When others took up the cause, it became the Colleges Legal Fund, and donations began to flood in. "People were coming round to my house and pushing money through the letterbox, they felt so strongly about the issue," he says.

With the legal battle under way - first stop being an employment tribunal, followed by an appeal at which Mr Evans declares roundly that they were "'screwed" - Leaf was born in order to put things on to a more stable footing. "I didn't really want to start a union. You'd have to be off your head to do so. And then everybody got the hump with us - Natfhe, employers, everybody."

Several years had now passed since the case began, but Mr Evans, together with his unpaid national officer David Robinson, still felt that sense of injustice as keenly as ever. "The more we looked into it, the angrier we became. People forget what it was like then. Suddenly you had college principals feathering their own nests at the expense of lecturers, and Roger Ward (the then leader of the employers) running around the country encouraging them."

So incensed was Mr Evans at the behaviour of the flamboyant Mr Ward that he took the trouble to search him out for a "conversation" after the latter's forced resignation in 1998.

"A few of us went along to the restaurant he had started up in north London. He sat down with us and talked about Natfhe and what an easy ride they'd given him. If they had stood up to him, he told us, he could never have got away with all he did."

The man who was instrumental in destroying the Silver Book in the first place came face to face with the leaders of a union formed specifically to defend it.

At first, Mr Evans did the general secretary's job in the evenings and at weekends, but eventually he had to give up his day job and take on the role full time.

He cheerfully admits the union runs "on a shoestring" - hence his back-room HQ - but feels that it still manages to offer a good service to the members.

Most of his time is spent on case work and he drives hundreds of miles every week to help members up and down the country to resolve disputes with their employers. "It's been a tough thing. A very hard run. But then I am quite tenacious. I stick at something. I've never been someone who walks away."

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