After a day of closed-door talks, mediator Vince Ready says the two sides in the B.C. teachers' strike are still far apart, but the talks are expected to resume today as they seek to restart formal negotiations.
"It was a very candid exchange about the differences in their positions," Ready told reporters after meeting with both sides for four hours on Thursday afternoon at a hotel in Richmond, B.C.
Ready agreed earlier this month to work with the groups, but said real mediation can't start until teachers and the government are closer to agreeing to terms.
"They still are a long ways apart. I’ve asked them to return tomorrow [Friday] with their bargaining committees and present me with some proposals that will hopefully lead to some serious negotiations and the continuation of negotiations."
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But the B.C. Public School Employers' Association (BCPSEA) said after the meeting that talks may go nowhere if the teachers don't agree to set aside grievances related to an ongoing court battle that has both sides $225 million apart before negotiations even begin.
"That's the danger," said BCPSEA chief negotiator Peter Cameron.
"Of course there's opportunities for the parties to signal to Vince other things they might be prepared to move on. We've tried to do that with Vince," said Cameron.
"I'm not myself convinced the union has offered very much to Vince in the way of hope that mediation could be productive, but they've got every opportunity now to give that signal to Vince."
BCTF 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.
When could classes start?
It remains unclear when classes would start if the two sides reach a deal, but Cameron is still holding out hope schools could open on Tuesday morning as scheduled.
"It is possible. Obviously there are some challenges logistically, but it's possible," he said Thursday after the meeting.
Following a summer of stalled negotiations, Thursday's meeting came after Iker and Cameron met with B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender on Wednesday, in a session that appeared to offer hope that meaningful talks between the two sides could begin.
At that meeting, Fassbender proposed both sides put on hold the specific issues that are the subject of an ongoing court battle.
He also proposed if mediated talks can begin on the remaining issues, that the strike and lockout be suspended for two weeks to reopen schools for the start of school.
But Fassbender said Iker told him in the meeting he would need to consult the union executive before responding. The minister said Iker also told him teachers would need to vote before the strike would be suspended.
On Thursday, Fassbender called on Iker to canvass teachers in advance of Sept. 2 on the idea of suspending the BCTF's pickets if Vince Ready is engaged in mediation.
"There are only a few days ahead for Mr. Iker to seek a mandate from teachers on this idea," said Fassbender.
"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 fight over Bill 28
The legal battle to which Fassbender is referring is the fight over Bill 28, legislation introduced by the Liberal government in 2002 that took away teachers' ability to bargain class size and composition.
Recently, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled the legislation was illegal, and ordered the government to settle with the teachers. But the government is now appealing that ruling.
Fassbender, who estimates teachers' legal grievances amount to $225 million a year in additional funding, is now asking the teachers to put those issues aside while they wait for the legal appeals to be exhausted.
"Put that aside for the sake of this process, because it will run its normal course, and we'll see what comes out of it at that point," said Fassbender on Thursday morning.
But a Ministry of Education spokesman insists the government is still willing to discuss class size and composition in negotiations.