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Province agrees to mediator in teacher talks

By Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - The British Columbia government agreed Friday to bring in a mediator to try and resolve the impasse that has put thousands of teachers on picket lines, after the independent facilitator who spent more than a year running interference in the dispute resigned.

Mark Brown stepped aside after the BC Teachers' Federation unilaterally called for mediation on Thursday, facing a second week on strike with the parties still legions apart.

The government's chief negotiator, Peter Cameron, said Friday he spoke directly to the union president earlier in the day and they decided to contact the union's proposed mediator together, get clarification on his availability and find out if he would accept the job.

"There is a number of people in the province that are highly respected, have a high profile and a success record," Cameron said in an interview. "It may be that (a mediator) is able to help convince the union about where the settlement zone has to be.

"But the expectation shouldn't be that we're going to be doing anything more than making relatively small adjustments that are available at this point."

Brown had been involved in the discussions since February 2013, to no avail.

Cameron said his decision to leave is unfortunate but his view was that Brown had been put in an "awkward position." The union, for their part, said Brown was well-informed of the decision to call for mediation and said it's a normal next step for a facilitator to depart at that point.

Federation president Jim Iker suggested veteran mediator Vince Ready could help bridge the divide.

"We've already moved into the government's zone in wages, we did that last weekend," he said in an interview.

"So we're pretty close on wages. We made a significant move and now what we need government to do is move into our zone to deal with the issues of class size, class composition and specialist teacher levels."

A statement Friday from the government's bargaining arm said it supported getting a mediator involved.

"The sooner the better," said the statement from the BC Public School Employers' Association.

"Regardless of the process going forward, the union must still deal with the fact that the solution ... is not simply changing from an expert and respected facilitator to an expert and respected mediator."

But a fresh third party may spur some movement, said University of the Fraser Valley Associate Prof. Fiona McQuarrie.

"I think it's a recognition by the BCTF that the bargaining is stuck and this is one way to get it going again," said McQuarrie, with the university's school of business. "At this point I think it will be helpful."

A mediator has no formal authority to settle the dispute. Their mandate is to bring the parties together and help them reach agreement on their own, McQuarrie said.

There's not even consensus at this point about the biggest impediment to a deal.

Government negotiators contend teachers are asking for wage increases and a benefit fund that would amount to a 14.5 per cent hike, which they discount as outside "the affordability zone."

The union is asking for an eight per cent salary boost, a $5,000 signing bonus and $225 million fund over the life of a five-year agreement to cover additional costs like preparation time and improved health benefits.

The government has offered a seven per cent wage increase and $1,200 signing bonus over six years, arguing the union is asking for twice the compensation of other public-sector settlements.

There's also a standoff over classroom conditions. The government's proposal of a $75-million annual learning improvement fund is a third of the union's proposal of an ongoing $225 million annual fund to be used exclusively to hire additional teachers.

Hundreds of teachers rallied in downtown Vancouver on Thursday evening, eliciting pledges from unions across B.C. and even Ontario to help replenish the union war chest. The federation ran out of money for strike pay before the full-scale walkout began on June 17.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario is donating $1 million that will be distributed to BCTF members, Iker said.

As of Friday afternoon, no talks were scheduled. Cameron said Ready would be out of province all weekend.

___

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