With just days to go before the scheduled start of the school year, veteran mediator Vince Ready has agreed to meet with B.C. teachers' union president Jim Iker and chief government negotiator Peter Cameron.
The meeting will take place on Thursday, according to a B.C. Teachers' Federation spokesperson, but is not a commitment to enter mediation.
Professional mediator Ready agreed earlier this month to work with the groups, but also said he can't start working until teachers and government are closer to agreeing to terms.
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The move follows a meeting on Wednesday between B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender, Cameron and Iker, which resulted in repeated calls for mediation to settle their long-running contract dispute.
Leaving that meeting, Cameron said the minister raised two major issues, the B.C. teachers' legal grievance and the ongoing strikes and lockout.
"The [minister's] most dramatic idea was that the parties should stand down the strike and lockout for the beginning of the school year...seeking to find a solution through mediation during that," said Cameron.
"The minister also suggested it would be quite constructive if the parties agreed to park the issue of [grievance] settlement, for which there is already a dispute resolution route," said Cameron.
After a decade of court battles, the provincial government is still appealing a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that it violated teachers' rights when it stripped them of specific bargaining provisions in 2002.
"It remains to be seen how responsive the BCTF will be to the suggestions made by the minister at the meeting," Cameron said.
'We need a negotiated deal'
A short while earlier, B.C. Teachers' Federation president Jim Iker told reporters there were no real new ideas offered in the meeting, but they wanted mediation to begin immediately.
"Let's get mediation going tomorrow, that's our hope," said Iker. "We need a negotiated deal and we believe the only way that can happen is through mediation with Vince Ready."
"We have more compromises we can make, which will happen through Mr. Ready and through mediation," said Iker. "But we also need some commitments from government that they're also going to move on the issues so that we can get closer together.
Referring to the idea of "parking" the grievance portion of the court case, Iker said they could go down the route of grievance arbitration or settle the issue at the bargaining table, but these things would be decided in mediation with Ready.
'Let's go into mediation'
Meanwhile, Minister Fassbender echoed Cameron's description of the meeting, saying he had proposed putting the strikes on hold for two weeks and entering mediation as soon as Ready called the parties together.
"I clearly recognize the BCTF has said they want mediation, just as the government has said we want mediation. The challenge is why are we in mediation?
"It isn't as simple as to say 'Let's get into mediation,' and it happens. Clearly professional mediation looks at where both parties are and determines whether or not mediation is warranted at that particular place."
Fassbender said halting the strikes for two weeks would give Ready enough time to try to mediate a deal but Fassbender says Iker had told him he would need to hold a union vote first.
"These two weeks would start the minute Vince Ready says 'I am prepared to mediate this dispute because I believe the parties are close enough so that mediation is warranted,'" said the minister.
"Let's get back in the classrooms, let's get teachers back, let's get students learning, let's get at the table, let's get a settlement and let's get it done in those two weeks.
"And if we get it done, hallelujah, we're back doing what we should be doing and talking about educational outcomes."
Summer of silence
The meeting in Victoria comes after a summer of limited discussions and media blackouts, and could give renewed hope to parents expecting the ongoing teachers' strike to delay the start of the new school year.
The province's 40,000 public school teachers began the strike two weeks before the end of the last school year, calling for higher wages and more control over class sizes and composition.
As the new school year approaches, the BCTF has said a rotating picket schedule will be in effect again at schools across the province this week, with picket lines going up in Vancouver, Langley and Kamloops on Monday.
Classes at B.C. public schools were scheduled to resume Sept. 2 for the start of the 2014-15 school year. The government has promised to pay parents $40 per school-aged child for every school day that is missed due to the strike.
The government has promised it will not legislate teachers back to work and has warned parents to be prepared for children to be out of school until the contract dispute is settled.