03/20/2012 02:57 EDT | Updated 05/20/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. teachers continue debate on next steps in contract dispute

B.C. teachers continued to debate Tuesday on what the next steps will be in their ongoing contract dispute with the provincial government.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation has been holding its annual meeting in Vancouver since Saturday, where there have reportedly been talks of an illegal strike in defiance of Bill 22, the back-to-work legislation that went into effect over the weekend.

Speaking from China where he's promoting B.C. education, Minister George Abbott warned any further job action will only harm students and parents.

"What people may think about me or think about the government is entirely up to them," he said.

"They're certainly welcome to their opinions, but when it becomes a penalty to 520,000 students and their parents, that's where I become very concerned."

Bill 22 bans further walkouts, forces teachers to resume their normal duties, imposes a six-month "cooling-off" period and then sends the contract dispute to mediation.

'Bill 22 does not impose a settlement'

The legislation also 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 and $1.3 million a day for the BCTF organization.

Teachers argue the bill puts too many controls on how they do their jobs while doing nothing to improve classroom conditions.

Abbott, however, defended the bill, saying he hopes teachers embrace what he calls the constructive path that has been laid out for them in the legislation.

"Bill 22 does not impose a settlement. It gives the parties another opportunity, with the support of a mediator, to work through a number of the issues."

On Tuesday, Vancouver's District Parent Advisory Council released a letter to Abbott saying their members oppose Bill 22.

"Our parents have informed us that they do not support Bill 22 as an improvement to education and want the bill removed," the letter reads.

"Our parents do not want pay to teachers based on class size. Our parents do not want to see teachers legislated back to work; their charter rights impaired or removed and a penalty for exercising these rights.

Incurring fines

But BCTF president Susan Lambert said Monday she would back illegal job action.

"If the 41,000 members of the B.C. Teachers' Federation decide that we're going to take the action that will incur fines, then I will be incurring fines, I suppose," she said.

It is not clear when a decision on the teachers' next steps will be made public. Teachers are expected to debate the issue late into the evening Tuesday and say an announcement is unlikely.

The union could announce the results of the debate Wednesday or opt to wait until it goes to membership for a vote, which likely won't happen until early April.

Lambert re-elected

Meanwhile, Lambert was re-elected to a third term as BCTF president on Tuesday. She garnered 429 votes to 238 for competitor Rick Guenther to lead the union for another year.

Lambert has strongly faced down the government to oppose the passage of back-to-work legislation, calling Abbott a bully.

Guenther, who has years of experience as a union activist, has said the union needs to forge respectful conversations with the government.

The province's 41,000 teachers have been without a contract since June 2011 and began job action in September, which included not filling out report cards. Earlier this month they staged a three-day strike after the government introduced Bill 22.

Key issues in the dispute include wages, benefits, class sizes and support for special needs students.

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

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.