Vince Ready, British Columbia's storied mediator, failed to save the start of the provincial school year, but continues to hover over a dispute that has the province's 40,000 school teachers in the fourth month of a strike.
"He's walking away, but keeping in touch with the parties," Peter Cameron, the chief negotiator of the British Columbia Public School Employers' Association, said in an interview after Mr. Ready's announcement on Saturday that the association and teachers' union were too far apart to reach a deal after two days of bargaining.
Mr. Ready's comments, at a hotel where he had been shuttling between a pair of rooms each occupied by the parties, dashed the hopes of thousands of parents that classes would resume, as scheduled, this Tuesday.
It was a rare high-profile setback for Mr. Ready, who has a reputation for crafting deals out of thorny labour conflicts in the province.
He's been at it since he launched his own arbitration and mediation firm in 1982. He's now 71, but says he has no plans to retire.
"Every time I think of [retirement], I get over it," Mr. Ready said last week, chuckling as he prowled the halls of the hotel during the talks.
Mr. Ready said he was too busy to talk in depth about himself and would only answer three personal questions: his age, his view of retirement and that he was born in the Ottawa Valley city of Pembroke. One associate later noted that mediators never see themselves as the story.
Mr. Ready worked in construction and mining and then, eventually, as an organizer with the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers before becoming an organizer with the United Steelworkers of America.
In 1982, he launched his firm. According to his company website, he has mediated in more than 7,000 labour and commercial disputes since.Mr. Ready has mediated deals in strikes affecting transit, pulp mills, grain ports, the province's ferry service and truckers at the port of Vancouver. In the early 1990s, he was appointed a special mediator in the labour dispute at the Giant Mine in Yellowknife that included the killing of nine replacement workers in a bombing. His work helped bring about a deal.
Mark Thompson, an industrial-relations professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and former mediator himself, says British Columbia has always had at least one go-to mediator – a key figure in the spotlight. For at least 15 years, he says the light has been shining on Mr. Ready.
"One man on the management side told me that [Mr. Ready's] secret is that because he is a working guy – he started out as a member of the Steelworkers and moved up in the structure there years ago. He understands the workers and he speaks their language, but he also understands management," said Prof. Thompson. "Each side thinks he'll be respectful and even sympathetic to their point of view."
Because he works behind closed doors and rarely gives interviews, only clients see exactly what Mr. Ready does to earn his professional reputation.
After a three-hour meeting last week with Mr. Ready and the head of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, Mr. Cameron shed some light on the mediator's style.
"Vince is a very skillful person. He's been through many of these things," Mr. Cameron told reporters. "He knows when to make a comment at the appropriate time and when to probe and when to inquire and when to get the discussion going and when to stand back," said Mr. Cameron. "He's very good at it."
Steve Hunt, a Western Canada director with the United Steelworkers, has known Mr. Ready for almost 40 years. He says it took a lot of hard work for Mr. Ready to gain traction, but success in several significant disputes led to management requesting his services.
Mr. Ready's affable personality, Mr. Hunt wrote, helps him to a point. "But he is never your friend when he does his job. He drives the parties to the deal with his uncanny ability to time his interventions," Mr. Hunt, on vacation abroad, wrote in an e-mail exchange.
Mr. Hunt noted that Mr. Ready has a knack for taking the edge off bargaining by telling stories about other tables than the one he's at without naming names, a process that deters participants from the negative behaviour he's talking about.
"His instinctive ability to time his interventions are the best that I have ever experienced," Mr. Hunt wrote.
NDP MP Jinny Sims saw Mr. Ready in action years ago when she was president of the B.C teachers' union and the mediator was trying to get a deal.
In an interview, she recalled Mr. Ready hearing out one side, then pressing them. After that, he would shuttle to another room to do the same with the other side. Then he would be back. During talks in the current strike, Mr. Ready was doing the same in a corridor at a Richmond Sheraton.
"He doesn't need to be liked," she said. "He's focused on getting a deal," she said.