After what Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), described with some understatement as a "lively discussion", the union's national executive committee last week voted to reject the government's latest pensions offer and plan for a campaign of industrial action.
The provisional date for the first strike has been set for 1 March, which, whether by coincidence or design, also marks the end of the ballot that will decide who will lead the union for the next five years.
The vote marks a significant moment in the history of the UCU. The leadership battle is between Ms Hunt, who has led the union since its formation in 2006, and Mark Campbell.
Both are 47 years old and have 12-year-old daughters; the pair often used to swap stories about the perils of parenting. But as the contest has become increasingly fractious, the days of friendly chats about family seem like a distant memory.
Ms Hunt and Mr Campbell represent opposite ideological ends of the union: the former is a Labour Party member close to the right of the union, while the latter is a paid-up member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the founder of the UCU Left movement.
This faction has grown in influence in recent years, demonstrated by the fact that Ms Hunt's recommendation to the executive last week - that the union should ballot its members on accepting the government's pensions offer - was unceremoniously rejected.
A counter proposal from UCU Left - calling for the deal to be unequivocally rejected and to plan for rolling strikes - was passed by 24 votes to eight.
While Ms Hunt believes the politicisation of UCU's national executive has created dangerous factionalism - "There is no place for any political party within UCU, none. It's not what our members expect," she told TES - her rival believes the union needs to be more political if it is to become a major player.
"We need to have an industrial strategy, but it has to be linked very closely with a political strategy," Mr Campbell said. "We haven't emphasised enough that linkage. I think our members know that in their hearts."
As a child in a mining family in the North East, Mr Campbell said he was "brought up to believe that working-class people stand together". "I'm still proud of that," he said. He was the first person in his family to go to college; he become a senior academic in computing at London Metropolitan University, despite never having obtained a bachelor's degree.
As a union activist of 15 years' standing, Mr Campbell believes he represents grass-roots members. "I feel I'm much more in touch with what's happening on the ground," he said. "Sometimes the people who do the backbiting aren't the ones who are involved in the day-to-day struggles."
Conversely, Ms Hunt believes that the growth of UCU Left has weakened the influence of the average union member, citing an increase in the number of members on the "far too large" executive, with many holding "uncontested" seats. She describes the influence Mr Campbell holds over members as "outrageous".
"The SWP is saying that it represents our membership . that's not true and not credible. Our members have their own opinions - they don't want to be lectured to," she added.
Mr Campbell said he is familiar with the allegations that the faction is "taking over our union" - a claim he is quick to dismiss. "There are those who would say UCU Left is a `bunch of Trots', but every member of the NEC (national executive committee) has political organisations they belong to. I've been a (SWP) member for all that time and it's not got in the way of my union duties."
Both contenders claim they speak for the majority of UCU members; the leadership ballot, which runs from 6 February to 1 March, will reveal who has won their hearts and minds.
WHAT THEY STAND FOR
- A greater say for members in how UCU is run.
- A focus on campaigns that promote education.
- Less political influence in UCU.
- A defence against the privatisation of education.
- Continuous strikes over changes to pensions.
- Stronger political influence for UCU.
- A campaign for free and optional Institute for Learning membership for FE teachers.
- A higher profile in UCU for FE and adult education.
Photo: Mark Campbell is competing with Sally Hunt for power at the University and College Union.
Photo credit: Mark Kerrison