The leader who built bridges;FE Focus;Conference;National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education

29th May 1998 at 01:00
Francis Beckett reports from the conference of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education

"THE difference Paul Mackney has made is unbelievable. People in head office are talking to each other," said Jenny Craven Griffiths from Nottingham Trent University.

NATFHE president Norman Jemison said in his address: "I've never felt so positive about the future of the union in the last few years as I do now."

It was easy to forget that the union has suffered a leadership crisis. It dumped its past three general secretaries: the first for being too right-wing, the second for being too left-wing, and the third for being unable to impose his will on the warring factions.

On Mr Mackney's first day in his new job, December 12 last year, he was greeted by a picket line of his staff. When he met the executive, they told him to make 15 per cent redundancies. So he did.

He took over a battered and demoralised office. They had suffered from NATFHE's troubled years, and did not always feel appreciated by the members. There has always been a strong element in the union which regards them as "trade union bureaucrats" and little better than the bosses.

So Mackney, who believes that the future of the staff is with its lay activists, took pains to ensure during his first general secretary's speech to the conference that he got a standing ovation for the staff. When members of his staff congratulated him on his speech, he replied: "Noticed the standing ovation for the staff? Long time since we've seen one of those."

In his speech he attacked "governing bodies bulging with the tired corporals of industry who will insist on introducing us to the real world of competition". But "the era of the spiv is over I The red in tooth and claw competitors of yesteryear are now speaking of the benefits of partnership, planning and co-operation. Thatcher's brats are trying hard to become Blair's babes." "NATFHE I has a proud record of exposing fantasy expansion, franchise fraud and pile-em-deep, teach-em-cheap scams."

But no union leader can do anything without luck, and the timing of Mackney's election was certainly good. He came in six months after the demise of the Conservative government, just in time to watch the fall of Association of Colleges' chief executive Roger Ward. Between them, the Tories and Ward had battered the union for years.

At the same time the fractious membership seem to have realised that they had better hang together. Most people last weekend were willing to praise Mackney if they could. Vicky Seddon, the outgoing general treasurer who stood against him as general secretary, was generous. Even left-wing bogeyman Fawzi Ibrahim played the statesman, at one point rescuing the leadership from a rather half-hearted left-wing assault.

Of course it would not be a trade union conference, and especially a NATFHE one, if the general secretary was not attacked, and that 15 per cent staff cut was always the best candidate for a casus belli. Maire Daley of Liverpool Community College complained that he had cut the staff directly employed on equal opportunities work: "The general secretary came in and made head office changes which had sweeping effects on equal opportunities. This conference has voted for years for equal opportunities. The equal opportunities unit in NATFHE has pioneered changes in the TUC approach to this subject. Great damage has been done to equal opportunities by the general secretary in his proposals."

But he brushed the criticism aside. "None of our staffing will be adequate until we can get thousands more members from the thousands of lecturers who do not belong to any union" he said.

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