03/19/2012 12:14 EDT | Updated 05/19/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. teachers rally in downtown Vancouver

B.C. teachers held a rally and March in downtown Vancouver Monday afternoon to protest the back-to-work legislation passed last week by the provincial government.

Teachers walked up Georgia Street from the Hyatt Hotel where the B.C. Teachers' Federation is holding its annual meeting. A small group handed out pamphlets and teachers waved placards that read 'Budget cuts hurt kids.'

At the annual meeting, BCTF delegates are debating the union's next steps in an ongoing contact dispute with the province. Teachers spent the weekend debating their response to Bill 22, including challenging the bill in court, withdrawing extracurricular activities and staging a full-scale illegal strike.

BCTF president Susan Lambert said Sunday delegates are debating a full range of possibilities, from doing "nothing to everything."

Lambert refused to comment on reports one of those options was an illegal strike.

"It's a private conversation debate that we are having in committee, which means I cannot on the nature of the recommendations, but the sentiment of the debate is outrage," Lambert said Sunday.

Considering a walkout

But Greater Victoria Teachers' Association president Tara Ehrcke told CBC News Monday morning a walkout was one of the options her delegation brought to the meeting.

"We had a meeting with our membership prior to coming and got some information and got some instructions from our members, and our delegates are bringing that information to the meeting and that's certainly one of the things that we're considering," she said.

Bill 22 puts in place harsh financial penalties for teachers, unions and union representatives who take illegal strike action during the cooling-off period, including:

- $475 a day for teachers.

- $2,500 a day for union representatives.

- $1.3 million a day for the BCTF organization.

Teachers who support staging a full-scale strike say they wouldn't return to work until all the penalties were dropped.

The union says its response to the legislation won't be known until at least Tuesday evening and won't be finalized until it is put up for a vote.

Minister urges mediation

Meanwhile, Education Minister George Abbott urged teachers to take advantage of the mediation offered in Bill 22 instead of fighting the legislation.

Speaking from China where he is promoting B.C.'s education system, Abbott said the teachers have an opportunity under the bill to use mediation to explore areas that have not been dealt with until now.

He also defended the legislation, saying it was necessary to protect students, who he says paid a six-month price of dealing with teacher job action that deprived them of report cards.

Abbott says he's pleased the union has recommended potential mediators, calling the move a positive step, and he'll review the suggestions when he returns to B.C.

Lambert has put forward the names of two senior judges — B.C. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Kelleher and Appeal Court Justice Ian Donald — as possible mediators in the dispute.

However, Lambert says she doesn't know who would accept the job because the mediation is constrained by the government's insistence there is no money for wage increases.

No wage increases

The province's 41,000 teachers have been without a contract since June and began job action in September, which included not filling out report cards.

Earlier this month teachers staged a three-day strike after the government introduced legislation to end the job action and appoint a mediator to settle the dispute or impose a contract by September. Key issues in the dispute include wages, benefits, class sizes and support for special needs students.

The government has already said any mediated settlement must abide by the province's so-called "net zero" mandate, which stipulates that new public-sector contracts must not cost the government any additional money. That means any gains, such as increased wages, must be offset by concessions elsewhere.

Teachers, meanwhile, are asking for a 15-per-cent wage increase over three years.