Will poker ace make 'em pay?

8th October 2004 at 01:00
Employers beware! Many tense hours at the card table have made new Natfhe chair Jon Bryan a pretty mean negotiator. Patrick Hayes reports

Keeping your cards close to your chest, maintaining control of the table and knowing when to go "all in" are traits you would expect of an expert poker player. In his new position as national chair of FE for lecturers'

union Natfhe, Jon Bryan has found these to be excellent transferable skills.

Given any opportunity he will passionately draw the parallels between his beloved poker style "Texas-hold-em" and his union responsibilities: "My strategy for union negotiations is very similar to my poker strategy," he says. "Patience is the greatest virtue of all. You need to wait until you're ready to enter in and then go all in, forcefully and aggressively."

Before he can elaborate further, the theme-tune from "Mission Impossible" sounds on his mobile phone. A ring-tone selected especially for the Natfhe contacts calling him with queries many times a day.

At the age of 36, Mr Bryan is the youngest chair in the history of the union and is hailed as the "voice of youth", being some 10 years younger than the average Natfhe representative.

Bryan is responsible for the 42,000 NATFHE members working in FE, two thirds of all members. Any decisions regarding national or local action have to be passed through him. "It's been a long few months," he grins after finishing the phone call.

In his first month, he concluded three national agreements with all six education unions and the Association of Colleges. He has since been working on the implementation of year two of the pay deal agreement.

Growing up in a family of passionate union supporters during the miners'

strike and the battle against apartheid, Mr Bryan saw that "unions bring a great sense of community and solidarity".

He became a lecturer in Sociology at Newcastle college in 1993 and immediately joined Natfhe. Four years later he became a college representative, moving to the position of secretary before being elected as the northern representative on the National Executive. In 2001, Mr Bryan was elected to the position of vice chair of FE.

When the previous chair, Mick Barr, announced he was standing down, it was widely suggested he should stand. "I thought why not?" says Mr Bryan. "At 36 I have plenty of time to develop in the role."

Bryan was elected unopposed in May. Jackie Fisher, Mr Bryan's principal, recognises this as a good opportunity for him to realise his leadership potential: "He understands the reality of college life. He is pleasant, clever and well suited to the pragmatic role of being a chair."

Barry Lovejoy, head of colleges at Natfhe, says Mr Bryan was a popular choice. "He is a practising lecturer who knows the stresses and strains of local office well. He always has his feet firmly on the ground and is a tough negotiator: Opinionated, but not dogmatic."

He also shares the fundamental Natfhe values of "debate, discussion and democracy."

"To find the way forward we have to listen to all our representatives, allowing them to speak freely. Once a decision is made I will then push it forward, regardless of my own views about it."

According to Neil Sharp, a Newcastle college colleague, it is this principled yet down-to-earth attitude that means: "Jon is respected and trusted by students, lecturers and representatives alike".

Mr Bryan believes no one should be afraid of standing up for issues they believe in and that a platform for free debate should always be provided:

"What drives me forward is the idea that as an individual you can make a difference. Everyone in Natfhe can make a difference."

Mr Bryan's secret to managing his intense drive? "When the pressures of work, family life and union responsibilities become too much, I take my mind off everything through completely absorbing myself in a long, challenging game of poker!"

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