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Obituary: Peter Dawson

Eloquent head of the teaching union Natfhe
PETER DAWSON became head of a teaching union just as the Thatcher years began, and millions of pounds of cuts in education were announced. His tenure as General Secretary of the university and college lecturers' union Natfhe was to coincide with the Iron Lady's reign. He was always exceptionally proud that, while Margaret Thatcher put unprecedented pressure on trade unions, Natfhe maintained its principles and managed to increase its members while other unions saw their numbers drop.

Born in 1940 in Swansea, Peter Dawson went to grammar school there before moving on to University College, Swansea, to do a degree in science and a diploma in education. Aged 22, he landed his first teaching job at Chiswick Grammar School but in 1965 left the classroom to take up his first role in the education union movement.

He started as a field officer for the NUT and quickly progressed to senior level. In 1969, he moved to the Association of Teachers in Technical Institutions (ATTI) to be its assistant secretary. It was a milestone year for the association as it held its first mass lobby of Parliament.

Also that year, ATTI hit the headlines because it was embroiled in a battle that attracted high-profile supporters including John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Several full-time lecturers from Guildford School of Art were sacked for "professional misconduct" after they raised concerns about a proposed amalgamation with another college. After a three-year campaign, which saw 11,000 people sign a petition, in 1971 Surrey Local Education Authority agreed to re-employ the lecturers.

Before he could catch his breath, Dawson was embroiled in another high- profile and sensational case. Birmingham Education Authority tried to sack a college lecturer after discovering she had featured naked carrying out a sex act in an educational film. When the film, Growing Up, was broadcast in 1971, Jennifer Muscutt was a member of staff at Garretts Green Technical College. Even though she had taken part in the film two years before, she was suspended from her post and the city's further education (FE) sub-committee decided to dismiss her.

Dawson argued the case was one of civil liberties and deserved a "complete and proper defence". He emphasised that the film was legal and had no connection with Muscutt's work in FE. His eloquent defence worked and the education committee finally agreed to re-employ her. In May that year, ATTI insisted its members should be allowed to "express and act upon their social, moral, religious and political views without restraint, provided this is done within the framework of legality".

By 1972, ATTI was the fastest-growing union in Britain as the FE sector expanded beyond its traditional subjects of engineering, technology and construction, to include social sciences and general studies. Through the early 1970s, ATTI supported NUT strikes, as well as having its own industrial action over an allowance for London lecturers.

In 1974, Dawson became negotiating secretary at ATTI and had the satisfaction of seeing his hard work pay off when the Houghton Committee delivered its biggest ever hike to teachers' salaries: 26 per cent. He also played a key role in the negotiations and backroom work that culminated in the first national agreement on conditions of service.

Dawson was appointed in 1979 to the position of General Secretary at Natfhe (the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education) which had been created four years earlier out of a merger of ATTI and ATCDE - the Association of Teachers in Colleges and Departments of Education. In May, the Thatcher government was elected and made immediate budget cuts of pounds 55m in education, threatening 15,000 jobs in FE. It was through this difficult era of attacks on public spending, cuts in public services and curbs on trade-union rights that Dawson steered the union. He played his part in leading the union into a different, more collective leadership, engaging both the lay activists and the growing cadre of full-time officials.

In 1989, Conservative legislation imposed regular membership elections for general secretaries on unions and Dawson lost office to Geoff Woolf. When a kindly member observed that, as the first professional national trade-union official to lose office under the new rules, he would now be guaranteed a footnote in the history books, Dawson drily responded that was not quite how he wished to be immortalised.

He continued at Natfhe as Assistant Secretary, with responsibility for pensions, and was later seconded half-time to Brussels as General Secretary of the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) - the leading voice of post-school teachers in Europe. In 1991, Dawson, a natural communicator with a fantastic memory for names, faces and facts, and a genuine internationalist, became General Secretary of ETUCE and then went on to work for the newly founded global union federation Education International, which was in its fledgling years. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he worked on the growth of EI in Eastern European countries and raised its membership from 30 to upwards of 45 states.

Since 1998, Dawson had acted as the London-based consultant to the EI General Secretary. Back at home, he couldn't resist the lure of UK politics and so became a Labour Party councillor at Lewisham, south-east London, where he lived.

Joseph Peter Dawson, trade unionist: born Swansea 18 March 1940; Vice- President, National Union of Students 1962-64, Senior Treasurer 1965-68; Field Officer, NUT 1965, Senior Field Officer 1966; Assistant Secretary, ATTI 1969, Negotiating Secretary 1974; Negotiating Secretary, Natfhe 1976, General Secretary 1979-89, Assistant Secretary (Pensions and Membership Services) and International Representative 1989-93; Chairman, Higher Education Working Group, ETUCE 1989-93, General Secretary 1991-93; Co-ordinator for Europe, Education International 1993-98, Consultant 1998-2005; married 1964 Yvonne Smith (one son, one daughter); died London 19 January 2005.