A day after B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender said the government and the teachers' union weren't "even close" to a deal, the provincial government has agreed to accept Vince Ready as mediator.
The move came after the independent facilitator who spent a year running interference in the dispute resigned, citing a lack of confidence after the teachers called for mediation.
The B.C. Teachers' Federation has been calling for Ready's appointment since Thursday, saying he is the only hope for a timely solution after announcing there had been no progress in the previous two days of bargaining.
However, the veteran mediator is away and it's still unclear whether he is willing to accept an appointment. The government and the BCTF would also need to work out his terms of reference.
Despite months of bargaining and ongoing teachers' strikes, the two sides are still far apart on the monetary aspects of a deal, including the key issues of wages, class size and composition.
The provincial government claims the union's latest proposal equates to double the cost of the average public sector contract in combined wages, benefits and signing bonus.
B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender has used the phrase "affordability zone" to describe contracts already signed by 150,000 other public sector employees.
The government has offered a seven per cent wage increase and $1,200 signing bonus over six years.
The other key impediment to a deal are long-standing issues of classroom conditions. The government's proposal of a $75 million annual learning improvement fund is a third of the union's proposal of an ongoing $225 million annual fund to be used exclusively to hire additional teachers.
At a teachers' rally that attracted more than a thousand supporters to downtown Vancouver Thursday night, several speakers from organized labour lent their voices the teachers' call for a mediated settlement.
Teachers, government agree on mediator
The government's chief negotiator, Peter Cameron, said Friday he spoke directly to the union president earlier in the day and they decided to contact the union's proposed mediator together, get clarification on his availability and find out if he would accept the job.
"There are a number of people in the province that are highly respected, have a high profile and a success record," Cameron said in an interview. "It may be that (a mediator) is able to help convince the union about where the settlement zone has to be.
Federation president Jim Iker suggested Ready could help bridge the divide.
A statement Friday from the government's bargaining arm said it supported getting a mediator involved.
"The sooner the better," said the statement from the BC Public School Employers' Association.
"Regardless of the process going forward, the union must still deal with the fact that the solution ... is not simply changing from an expert and respected facilitator to an expert and respected mediator."
But a fresh third party may spur some movement, said University of the Fraser Valley Associate Prof. Fiona McQuarrie.
"I think it's a recognition by the BCTF that the bargaining is stuck and this is one way to get it going again," said McQuarrie, with the university's school of business.
"At this point I think it will be helpful."
A mediator has no formal authority to settle the dispute. Their mandate is to bring the parties together and help them reach agreement on their own, McQuarrie said.
The biggest impediment to a deal are the wage offers.
Government negotiators contend teachers are asking for wage increases and a benefit fund that would amount to a 14.5 per cent hike, which they discount as outside "the affordability zone."
The union is asking for an eight per cent salary boost, a $5,000 signing bonus and $225 million fund over the life of a five-year agreement to cover additional costs like preparation time and improved health benefits.
As of Friday afternoon, no talks were scheduled. Cameron said Ready would be out of province all weekend.