RICHMOND, B.C. - A veteran labour mediator waded into a bitter dispute between the British Columbia government and its teachers Thursday, meeting with both sides in what could be the most significant development in a strike that is threatening to derail the start of the school year.
At the end of the meeting, mediator Vince Ready emerged to say the two sides still appeared very far apart. Still, he said he asked bargaining committees to reconvene with him on Friday.
Earlier in the day, Ready described the meeting as "exploratory" as he assessed whether the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, which bargains on behalf of the government, are close enough to begin formal mediation.
Teachers have been on strike since mid-June, though negotiations were largely stalled over the summer break, making a delayed start to the school year increasingly likely.
Ready, who has helped bring an end to a number of high-profile labour disputes in the province, acknowledged he was walking into a very difficult situation.
"Last time I met them, they were a long ways apart," Ready said as he arrived at a hotel in Richmond, south of Vancouver.
The gathering followed a proposal from the province's education minister, who asked the teachers' union and the employer a day earlier to enter into mediation, put aside one of the most contentious issues in the dispute, and agree not to stage strikes or lockouts for two weeks.
Peter Cameron, the employers' lead negotiator, said the education minister's proposal wasn't a prerequisite for mediation.
Union president Jim Iker did not comment as he arrived for Thursday's meeting or when he left for the day. Iker has yet to say whether the federation is prepared to put the strike on hold and allow teachers to return to the classroom next week, though he has said such a move would likely require a vote from union members.
Education Minister Peter Fassbender issued a statement earlier on Thursday asking the union to put the proposal to teachers.
"Today, I am asking Mr. Iker and the BCTF leadership to canvass teachers in advance of Sept. 2 on the idea of suspending their pickets if (labour mediator) Vince Ready is engaged in mediation," Fassbender said in the statement.
"There are only a few days ahead for Mr. Iker to seek a mandate from teachers on this idea. I think parents, students and communities would like to know whether the BCTF is willing to let schools open and allow teachers to work while mediator Vince Ready helps the parties to negotiate an agreement."
The main issues have been wages and working conditions, such as class size and class composition.
Class size and composition were also highlighted in a long-running court battle, which resulted in a B.C. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year in favour of the union.
The court ruled that the provincial government violated the union's collective bargaining rights when it stripped provisions related to class size and composition from the teachers' contract in 2002. The government is appealing the decision.
During negotiations, the union has proposed a fund worth $225 million a year to deal with contract grievances related to the court case. The province wants the potential impact of such grievances to be suspended until the case makes its way through the appeal process.
Fassbender's proposal this week would see those grievances taken off the table, instead leaving the courts to sort them out. Negotiations would instead focus on wages, class size and class composition, he said.
The education minister has repeatedly said the government will not use legislation to order teachers back to work.
The union has resumed picketing this week and announced plans to air radio ads targeting the provincial government. It has promised rallies outside the offices of the premier and several cabinet ministers next week if there's no deal by then.
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