Lecturers have pledged to risk legal action by employers, and possible seizure of their union funds, to pursue the most radical demands for improved pay and conditions in the past four years.
Policies drawn up by the FE Sector conference of the lecturers' union NATFHE last weekend are certain to put the lecturers at loggerheads with the national executive and head office.
The claim they expect to put to the Association of Colleges next month includes a #163;30-a-week pay rise, a starting salary of #163;17,000 and a maximum 30-hour working week with a ceiling of 21 hours of class contact.
The conference called for members to be balloted for a national one-day strike on September 29 should the claim fail. The strike call is certain to provoke a rift in the executive, since the last attempt to run the ballot necessary for such action led to a humiliating High Court defeat for the union.
Delegates at the conference gave overwhelming support for the proposed claim and action, and demanded that the executive rally the wider support of the trade union movement should it become necessary to defy the law.
The NATFHE national executive is likely to resist the more excessive demands.
It is bound to argue that while conference rules supreme when making policy, it loses such rights if the work of other sectors, such as adult and higher education, are jeopardised by the policies.
John Akker, NATFHE general secretary, said the pay claim still needed shaping. "All motions from the sector conference will go to the national executive committee on March 7."
Barry Lovejoy, sector chairman and convenor of the Socialist Lecturers Alliance, moved to stave off the confrontation. "This is a decision in principle and will have to go to national ballot, " he said.
"There was overwhelming support for all the elements of our claim, and it illustrates the frustration of those who have seen worsened pay differentials with school teachers and the breakdown of national bargaining. " He added the mood was for tough action.
NATFHE is to secure a deal anywhere near its demands. Most employers have told their negotiators at the AOC that pay awards will be minimal - about 2 per cent - and that they will have to be paid for in job losses.
Whatever the final claim to the employers, the union faces a hefty bill of at least #163;30,000 for a strike ballot, which is run branch by branch and aggregated nationally by the Electoral Reform Society.
The union has already tripped up on the 1993 Employment Act, which requires a detailed list of those balloted for action to be given to the employers. Its failure to do so in 1994 - for action against Blackpool and The Fylde College - led to a High Court defeat and set a precedent for all unions contemplating action.
Distaste for the way the law operated was voiced by all but the Tory party. The three judges presiding admitted they had reached their decision with unease.
Nevertheless, if just four or five names are wrongly included or omitted in any of the 350 NATFHE branch ballots, the entire action can be challenged in court. If any branch then proceeded with the action, they would risk the union's entire assets being sequestered.
A recent national strike succeeded in HE, but the employers were sympathetic.
The claim to be put to the AOC includes a restoration of the maximum 756-hour year. The pay rise would take those lecturers with degrees substantially above the teachers' starting salary of #163;14,000.