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Mediation could work for B.C. teachers - if two sides stop shouting at each other

" To say that, even though they were demanding just hours ago mediation on this, that they won't support mediation because it won't give them anything more than net zero, I think is just appallingly short-sighted," Education Minister George Abbott told reporters after announcing a mediator will be appointed.

The B.C. government has turned to the process of mediation to resolve the acrimonious dispute over the contract for the province's 40,000 teachers. The teachers federation says the process is a sham, with the outcome dictated by an education bill unveiled this week that lays out the terms and timing for mediation. The government says it remains open to negotiations on a list of items raised by teachers, while adamantly refusing to put more money on the table.

Can mediation help bring the two sides together? Experts in the field said unexpected and sometimes magical things happen when an impartial and independent mediator is brought in to resolve a dispute.

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The first requirement, they said, is for both sides to stop the angry rhetoric. Mediation is an entirely voluntary process that does not bind either side. As long as both parties are shouting at each other, mediators cannot even begin to work.

"The thing about mediation is that everyone has to be in agreement every step of the way or the process breaks down," Susan Hackley, the managing director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, said Wednesday in an interview.

A skilled mediator can help focus on problems and ensure each side really feels heard. "Often people are emotionally involved or there is a history of having difficulties, and they do not know how to move beyond that," she said.

But without agreement from both sides along the way, mediation will fail, she said.

To listen to the two sides, the chances of the government-imposed process resolving the dispute appear slim. The process set up by the government lacks what the experts say is essential for success: a willingness of both sides to co-operate.

The government is acting in bad faith, requiring teachers by law to participate in mediation without giving them any say on what will be discussed, Susan Lambert, president of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, said in an interview.

The lack of money available for an agreement is not the only issue, she added. The mandate of the mediator, set by legislation, goes far beyond financial matters to include several non-monetary issues such as seniority, she said.

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"The whole process is a mockery of fair play," Ms. Lambert said. "There is a predetermined outcome that requires us to be complacent in stripping out of our collective agreement rights that [the employers tried to take out]at the bargaining table, rights that took a long time to negotiate," she said.

While acknowledging the government has set the agenda, Mr. Abbott said the list of items for mediation include issues of interest to the teachers, such as the split in bargaining between local units and the provincial union, class size and composition, evaluation of teachers and professional development.

The government reached agreements with 130 other public-sector unions, which gives Mr. Abbott some optimism that an agreement can be reached with the teachers.

"The mediator is not going to force anything," he said. "A mediator promotes the discussion and that is what we want to have. … Clearly, the union could make gains for its members, were they to sit down and engage."

However, the government, in introducing its education bill, may have already put up too many roadblocks for that to happen. Mediation may not be the right term to describe whatever discussions take place this spring between the teachers and their employers.

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