The B.C. Teachers' Federation is calling for veteran mediator Vince Ready to step in and resolve a stalemate between educators and the provincial government, as the two sides remain at odds over issues such as health benefits and class sizes.
B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender hasn't dismissed the idea, but he reiterated that the government has no intention of agreeing to a deal it considers unaffordable.
BCTF president Jim Iker said during a news conference Thursday the two sides are at an impasse as the first week of a full-on strike concludes and the union hopes Mr. Ready can nudge things along.
"He has the experience to do it," Mr. Iker said.
Mr. Ready helped to secure a five-year deal between B.C. health-care workers and their employers last month, and also helped resolve a costly month-long dispute this year between non-unionized truckers and Port Metro Vancouver.
Mr. Ready was called in by the B.C. government in 2005 to mediate a dispute with the BCTF that had escalated into an illegal two-week teachers strike.
Mr. Ready prepared a set of recommendations that were adopted by both the union and the government, ending the labour strife.
Mr. Ready did not return requests for comment about whether he would be interested in stepping in this time.
Mr. Fassbender said the government would be open to bringing in an independent mediator, or to any other measure that could help the two sides eke out an agreement and end the strike that is otherwise likely to cut the school year two weeks short.
"If that's what the BCTF is calling for we're more than happy to sit down with him," Mr. Fassbender told reporters.
But, he added, that does not change the fact that the government has cost pressures.
"The government has a fundamental obligation to balance the budget and treat all 300,000 public sector workers fairly," Mr. Fassbender said in a statement. "That fundamental obligation cannot be mediated or arbitrated away."
While the two sides have been inching closer together on wages, they remain far apart on discrepancies in non-wage benefits as well as issues around class size and composition.
On Wednesday, the BCTF filled in some of the blanks relating to its latest proposal. Mr. Fassbender said Thursday those demands have pushed the two sides even further apart than they were a week ago.
The union is asking for a workload fund, to the tune of $225-million annually, that would be used to hire new teachers and result in smaller classes. The BCTF is also asking for a retroactive grievances fund – $225-million over the life of the contract – in exchange for withdrawing its grievances relating to a B.C. Supreme Court decision that ordered the government to return class sizes and staffing to 2002 levels.
"They filled in their blanks and clarified their positions," Mr. Fassbender said. "And instead of moving us closer, their latest demands moved them further away from the affordability zone for public-sector settlement."
A facilitator has been involved in the negotiations from the start and was recently asked to play a more significant role in the process, but the teachers' federation says it isn't enough. A mediator could increase the pressure on both sides to resolve the dispute, the BCTF said.
"Without having some extra support from a mediator, this could drag on," Mr. Iker said, urging Premier Christy Clark to agree to mediation.
Teachers began limited job action in April, ramped up to rotating walkouts in May and launched a full-scale strike on Tuesday. Both parties are hoping for a resolution to the dispute by the end of the school year, June 27.