VICTORIA - The Liberals can't bring themselves to admit it, but the government has broken its vow not to negotiate with striking teachers.
That's a good and responsible thing. The priority now should be on coming up with some acceptable deal to get schools open and head off the escalating walkouts.
And despite all the dancing from the government, that's what mediator Vince Ready is now trying to do.
Ready, a star in the mediation world, is meeting with the BC Teachers' Federation and the BC Public School Employers' Association to look for a possible solution.
Labour Minister Mike de Jong bobbed and weaved Wednesday. Ready was appointed on the eve of the strike to act as anindustrial inquiry commissioner and recommend a new bargaining structure, he said. Time is tight, so he has started
work now, says de Jong.
And make no mistake, De Jong said. The government hasn't retreated from its vow of no talks until teachers return to work,.
Except that working with Ready is Ken Dobell, the former top bureaucrat who is a special advisor to the premier.
Dobell isn't needed to help with the review of the bargaining structure. But he can play a critical role in talks to end the strike. Dobell can speak for the government, and make unofficial commitments that the teachers' union can expect will be kept. And he can do those things without officially breaking the no-talks rule.
The vow not to talk to teachers while they were on an illegal strike was never a good idea.
The rule of law is important, and governments can be expected to denounce illegal acts.
But the courts are capable of dealing with people or organizations that break the law. The teachers' union has already its assets frozen by BC Supreme Court Justice Brenda Brown to cut off strike pay and other funding for the walkout. On Friday it will return to court and likely face significant fines for continued defiance.
The employer's primary interest should be in fixing the immediate problem - in this case closed schools.
That's the approach governments generally take. Last year's illegal HEU strike was ended through a deal negotiated through the BC Federation of Labour.
Premier Gordon Campbell took responsibility. "We have concluded an arrangement supported by the B.C. Federation of Labour that will put an end to this dispute," he said then.
It's still not time to start looking for the kids' school books.In this kind of situation, with damage mounting and no clear end in sight, both sides should be focused on getting a deal, even a mediocre one. The process now should be about saving face and making - and accepting - small concessions and gains.
De Jong suggested the government would be willing look at adding more class size guarantees and other staffing requirements to the School Act. Given the right framework, and commitments for real discussions, that should address some of the union's concerns.
But the BCTF has so far shown no ability to recognize the need for compromise.
More than a week into the strike, it still has a proposal for a 15-per-cent wage increase on the table. It's past time for the union to accept a wage freeze - like other public sector unions - until the next round of talks in June.
Teachers have continued to enjoy wide public support, one of the factors that brought the government to the table. But the polls suggest that will fade as the illegal strike continues. Other unions will also question the usefulness of continuing their support if teachers don't compromise.
Ready will be reminding the teachers of those risks. And he will be reminding the government of it's failure to fix a broken bargaining system or even acknowledge the right of teachers to negotiate working conditons.
The government has blinked in this showdown. It was a sensible thing to do. Now we'll see if the parties can reach deal.
Footnote: The government's refusal to acknowledge that talks are under way is baffling. The public's interest is in a resolution and re-opened schools. Any efforts to achieve that will be well-received.