There's more than a glimmer of hope that the longest municipal labour dispute in Mount Pearl's history may soon end, but the union is delaying a ratification vote until the city presents a return-to-work plan.
A breakthrough occurred over the weekend as a conciliator helped bridge what had been a cavernous gap between teams representing the city and Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 2099.
Typically, a tentative agreement is quickly followed by a ratification vote.
However, union officials remain on edge, and hinted on Monday that the city is not in a rush to welcome workers back, a likely sign of the tension and rhetoric that dominated the 10-plus weeks since the strike began on July 7.
"The city did indicate they're not ready to have their workers come back to work just yet," Local 2099 president Ken Turner said Monday afternoon.
"We're not quite sure what that means. All we know is that we can't bring ratification vote to our membership without a completed return to work."
Despite the presence of picket lines, the most basic of municipal services have been maintained by the city's 40-plus management staff, with the strike interrupting a range of services, including youth sports, recycling programs and street maintenance.
Both sides have been engaged in a public relations back-and-forth, with the union standing firm on a pledge to fight the city's attempts to slash benefits for new employees and the city saying it has to hold the line on spending as tax revenues decline.
The strike took a more serious tone over the summer, when the city accused union members of bullying and intimidating managers trying to cross the picket line, and threatened to discipline some workers for violating safety protocols.
Asked Monday how he would describe the conduct of the union and its membership during the strike, Mayor Dave Aker said, "That's a detail that will be discussed as part of the back to work and the tentative agreement. So at the end of the day we'll discuss that and be able to publicly comment on that later on this week."
After several weeks of deadlock, negotiations resumed in earnest in recent days, and both sides hammered out a tentative agreement, with neither side offering any public insight into what was negotiated.
But despite hours of talks on Saturday, a return-to-work strategy was not reached.
Turner said his members were prepared to vote on the agreement-in-principle on Monday, but without a return-to-work strategy, plans for a vote are on hold.
Meanwhile, the union is not making a recommendation to its membership on whether to accept the agreement.
"We believe there is a large piece of our agreement that needs to be discussed, and the membership should make that decision on what they want to do to proceed forward on what the city has presented," said Turner.
CUPE has a seasoned bargaining committee, and Turner said negotiations were some of the toughest they've experienced.
"It seems there's been a lot of roadblocks along the way, but we've managed to overcome. We've got ourselves to a place where we think we can go back to the membership, and that's where we need to be," he said.
The mayor was choosing his words very carefully on Monday, but sounded hopeful that the chances of a resolution have improved.
"Both sides want the services to return to normal. The workers want to get back to work, and naturally council does as well in a normal fashion, so we're looking forward to having services restored and working with our employees going forward," said Aker.