Mr Mackney's mission impossible

9th January 1998 at 00:00
The lecturers'union has a new general secretary. Ben Russell talks to the man who has taken on debt, disputes and the culture of secret meetings

Paul Mackney has accepted a potentially deadly mission. The 47-year-old former regional union official is now general secretary of the lecturers' union, NATFHE.

His new office - a large corner room in the union's headquarters near London's King's Cross - is almost bare.

Only the three black bin bags lying in the corner hint at the union's turbulent recent past; they hold the belongings left behind by the previous general secretary, John Akker, who was ousted three years into a five-year term.

Mr Mackney's mission - should he choose to accept it - is to lead the notoriously fractious and factional lecturers to some sort of stable future in Britain's colleges and universities.

Some say it is a Mission: Impossible scenario. His three predecessors have been ousted in the past seven years.

The union is in the red - debts are projected to climb to Pounds 800,000 during 1998. Membership is falling, and NATFHE has been through a year of bitter disputes, including the unsucccessful 10-week strike at Southwark College in London which drained the strike fund.

But there is confidence in the new man, a professional union leader for the past 17 years.

Mr Akker, now an adviser to Liberal Democrat education spokesman Don Foster, likened his successor to General Eisenhower. "If you want to reform the army, bring in a general," he said.

Certainly Mr Mackney - a man once dubbed "Deals on Wheels" by Birmingham colleagues - has the credentials.

His record in deal-making is impressive. He brokered 34 college contract agreements across the West Midlands, and sealed a ground-breaking flexible contracts deal for adult education staff in Leicestershire; an agreement he claims would be the basis for restoring employment rights to thousands of casual lecturers.

He insists old conflicts over the Silver Book contracts must be laid to rest - and argues it would be pointless to base a strategy on industrial action which lecturers cannot sustain.

It all sounds like a recipe for compromise. Or it would do if Mr Mackney had not played a pivotal role in uncovering the scandals at Stoke-on-Trent College, organised 23 simultaneous strike ballots to force colleges to the negotiating table, and risked unpopularity by highlighting what he claims are looming problems at Bilston College in Wolverhampton.

His position on the issues of the day is clear. Agencies should not be used for lecturers employed for more than 12 weeks. The rise of short-term contracts in universities should end. National bargaining should be re-established. Management pay scales should be abolished.

The "internal market" in education should go - along with bureaucrats who count, rather than teach, the students.

"We will have to put to bed for ever the Silver Book dispute within the next six months," he said. "What I want is a national framework agreement. If we cannot agree with the Association of Colleges we want to be saying to the Government that these people are not pursuing civilised employment strategies. "

Flexible contracts negotiated in the Midlands virtually eliminated the need for casual agency staff, Mr Mackney said.

But NATFHE's new leader is suited to the modern age of partnership, co-operation and approachability.

His daughter's furry toy panda sits on the general secretary's chair at the headquarters of NATFHE. "She said the first thing I should do was to put the panda on the seat," said the man who now leads 66,000 lecturers.

Mr Mackney is regarded as a genuinely nice man. He broke off his interview with The TES to introduce himself to the woman who came in to clean his office.

And he says he has been struck by the warmth of his reception at the union's head office.

He comes into office with a pledge of a new start, a break from the conflict of the past and a new approach to management and their representatives at the AOC.

His primary aim is to re-establish national bargaining for lecturers. The first move is to negotiate a national bargaining framework, agreed with NATFHE and the AOC and to guide day-to-day talks in colleges across the land.

He talks of linking all the union's office by e-mail to bring staff closer to the members, and reforming the union's structure to make it work harder for the people on the ground; the first step, here says, to bringing in new members and turning the union's fortunes round.

From that start, he hopes, peace in colleges, and a better deal forlecturers will follow.

He said: "I'm not interested in a battle with the AOC. I'm interested in something which takes the FE sector forward and gets rid of its rather sleazy image. Colleges are about people teaching people, and you have to respect the lecturers who do the work."

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