03/18/2012 04:19 EDT | Updated 08/11/2012 05:12 EDT

BC Teachers Strike: Back-To-Work Legislation Forces Teachers To Consider Response

VANCOUVER - The union representing British Columbia's 41,000 teachers is remaining mum on how it will react to a recently enacted law that has forced members back to work.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation is currently holding its annual convention in Vancouver, and president Susan Lambert said Sunday that about 700 delegates will spend the coming days debating their reaction to Bill 22.

Passed into law in Victoria Thursday, the bill bans teachers from any further walkouts, forces them to resume their normal duties, imposes a six-month cooling off period and sends the months-long contract dispute to a mediator.

Lambert refused to comment on any of the convention's resolutions, noting that members were "debating the full range of possibilities" and those included doing "nothing to everything."

"It's in committee, which means it's a private conversation-debate that we're having in committee," she said. "I cannot comment on the nature of the recommendations. The sentiment, as I've said, is outrage."

The BCTF convention is taking place while Education Minister George Abbott is visiting China, helping set up two new B.C.-certified schools in Shanghai.

Abbott said Bill 22 invests an additional $165 million into classrooms and sets out a mediation process to help the federation and their employer, the BC Public School Employers' Association, reach a negotiated deal.

"I think we've put a very constructive path in front of the BC Teachers' Federation after ... a year of almost zero progress at the bargaining table," he said in a phone interview.

Abbott said mediation will allow each side to explore areas that haven't been explored to date.

"A process doesn't guarantee an outcome, but a process at least gets the parties to a place where they can better understand what's possible within an agreement," he said.

Back in Vancouver, Lambert said teachers began debating resolutions Sunday morning.

She said those discussions will continue until Monday night, and a decision will be made by the end of the convention, which wraps up on Tuesday.

Any resolution will go to a provincial vote, and whatever members decide, the federation will give parents as much notice as possible, said Lambert.

When it comes to recommending a mediator, though, Lambert said the federation has forwarded the names of two senior judges: Stephen Kelleher, a B.C. Supreme Court justice, and Ian Donald, a justice on the B.C. Court of Appeal.

"I don't even know what mediator would accept this job because there is no mediation contemplated," she said, noting the mediation that is being contemplated is on a narrow and constrained set of issues.

She said the issue up for mediation will require "strips" from the teachers' collective agreement.

Abbott said he is pleased to hear the teachers' federation has recommended mediators, calling the move a "positive and constructive step." He said he will review the suggestions when he returns from China.

Abbott asked for the federation and their employer to recommend mediators last week, but Lambert refused to comment at the time on whether or not she'd take up the minister on his offer.

With Abbott in China and no mediator in place, Lambert said Sunday that she doesn't see either side returning to the bargaining table yet.

The province's teachers have been without a contract since June.

The current dispute has focused on demands by teachers for a 15 per cent wage increase, as well as other changes to classroom conditions.

Teachers began limited job action in September, refusing to perform administrative tasks, like completing report cards.

Earlier this month, after winning approval from the Labour Relations Board, the teachers walked off the job for three days.

The provincial government then introduced Bill 22 into the legislature to end the dispute.

The bill also establishes fines for teachers or employers who break the rules.