Mediation in the protracted contract dispute between the Halifax Chronicle Herald and the union representing striking newspaper employees starts tomorrow.

But a labour expert says she wonders if the two sides will make progress with a third party when they know there's a public hearing planned should the non-binding mediation fail.

A neutral third party can sometimes help by spotting potential solutions the two sides don't see because "they're so wrapped up in their own positions," said Fiona McQuarrie, associate professor at the School of Business at the University of Fraser Valley in British Columbia.

But because mediation is only the first step, she said the two sides may just view it as a "formality to go through" in order to reach the second stage where a commissioner conducts a proper hearing into what's at the heart of the impasse.

On strike since January 2016

The province announced in July it would launch a commission to help end the almost 19-month long contract dispute between the Chronicle Herald and the Halifax Typographical Union.

Employees with the union, representing several dozen striking reporters, photographers and other workers, have been on strike since Jan. 23, 2016.

CRAFT Herald Strike 20170118

Eric Wynne waves to a supporter while joining other Chronicle Herald newsroom union members as they picket outside the newspaper's office in January. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

The government said it decided to step in because of the length of the strike and because talks between the parties had repeatedly broken down.

Commissioner William Kaplan will try to mediate a solution between both sides, but he has no power to enforce a deal. 

Common ground?

If an agreement is not reached, the commissioner will then investigate the causes of the dispute by holding a public hearing and report his findings and potential recommendations to the minister. Those recommendations are not binding.

McQuarrie said Kaplan is an experienced mediator.

"I don't doubt his ability to find common ground if there is some," she said. "My question at this point would be if there is common ground to be found."

The Chronicle Herald, which is headquartered in Halifax and is Canada's oldest independently owned newspaper, has relied on reporters who have crossed the picket line while its unionized newsroom employees have been on strike.

Newspaper purchases raise questions

According to the province, the last time it appointed an industrial inquiry commission in the private sector was in 1993.

McQuarrie said "everybody prefers" that the government typically avoid getting involved in private-sector negotiations, but felt the McNeil government should have stepped up as soon as the newspaper announced in April it was buying more than two dozen Atlantic Canadian papers owned by Transcontinental Inc.

Ingrid Bulmer

Ingrid Bulmer, the president of the Halifax Typographical Union, has said she's happy the province is intervening in the contract dispute. (CBC)

"At least on the face of it, there's a discrepancy between what the company is claiming and bargaining and what it's actually capable of doing," she said.

Ingrid Bulmer, the president of the Halifax Typographical Union, at the time of the announcement said she was relieved the government was stepping in.

Ian Scott, chief operating officer for SaltWire Network — the new media group that publishes the Chronicle Herald — said in July they were "puzzled" by the decision to launch a commission and wouldn't comment until there was more clarity.

With files from Information Morning in Halifax