The fifth week of a school strike that has kept half-a-million B.C. students out of their classrooms started differently on Monday, with veteran mediator Vince Ready shuffling back and forth down a long hotel hallway that separated rooms with negotiators from both sides.
The five days of talks, including a marathon that went into the wee hours of Monday morning, have been the most intense – and promising – since job action began in the spring. B.C. teachers' union president Jim Iker and government negotiator Peter Cameron met face-to-face at least once, but a media blackout means only a general picture is available of what is going on based on accounts from negotiators who have been in similar situations.
"It's too early to tell," Mr. Ready said as he headed back into the hotel on Monday afternoon. "I'm not going to say anything."
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For decades, Mr. Ready has been finding solutions in long-running B.C. labour disputes between sides that are communicating poorly, distrust each other and are too far apart to compromise.
"Mr. Ready's secret is timing: His specialty is to find disputes that have dragged on for so long that both sides are looking for a settlement," said an official who has been in the room during mediation led by Mr. Ready in the past.
"They both think that he'll push the other side towards them, and as long as they are persuaded that that remains the case, it'll work."
With teachers having gone without pay for months, and pressure mounting on the government to find a solution soon, the sides have been at the table for the longest sustained negotiations.
At the start of the summer, Justice Stephen Kelleher refused to mediate after finding both sides too far apart. In late August, Mr. Ready walked away for similar reasons. He continued to test both sides until they agreed to meet again on Thursday.
In 2012, Charles Jago helped mediate an agreement between B.C.'s 41,000 teachers and the government in similar circumstances.
In that negotiation, both sides met only once, for 15 minutes, to hear a presentation he wanted to deliver to them at the same time.
Other than that, negotiating teams remained in their conference rooms. According to Mr. Jago, the discussions within each room are intense and exhausting as negotiators debate among themselves what they are willing to compromise on.
"The mediator goes back and forth. You wear out a pair of shoes very quickly at this," Mr. Jago said.
Mr. Jago was appointed mediator in 2011. After months of low-level job action and then a strike, he brokered a short-term deal that ended in 2013.
The process is delicate, and with such high stakes, details are important. Such as how many floors in a hotel separate the two sides.
"They each need their space, they need their privacy, they don't want to be bumping into each other in the halls," Mr. Jago said.
There have been reports Mr. Ready has briefly had both teams in the same room, but Mr. Jago cautioned against reading anything negative into that.
"With all the hours and hours I put into it, I had them in the room once for 15 minutes. There is a lot of tension there and a lot of mistrust. You need to respect that and meet with the teams separately."
In this dispute, the government and the union were far apart on the issue of wages and benefits, with the government insisting teachers could not exceed its standard offer to public sector workers: wage increases of 5.5 per cent over five years.
Negotiated settlements between the B.C. Teachers Federation and government are rare – since moving to a province-wide bargaining model 20 years ago, only two agreements have been reached through collective bargaining.
Many of British Columbia's 68,000 classrooms, abandoned in mid-June, could be reopened within 24 hours if teachers vote to end their strike. A smooth and orderly return to the new school year, however, will take longer.
In some of the province's 60 school districts, custodians have cleaned the vacant classrooms. In other cases, picket lines meant no maintenance was done, and it may take more time to open schools.