The Ontario government secretly paid $1-million to the Catholic teachers’ union and $500,000 to the French teachers’ union to buy labour peace. This means three unions have now received payments totalling $2.5-million from the government in this year’s round of bargaining.

And Education Minister Liz Sandals has admitted that the government has repeatedly given such payouts to teachers’ unions over the past decade to compensate them for the cost of collective bargaining with the province.

The payments raise tough questions about the government’s claims it is not spending new money to reach labour settlements.

They also call into question the province’s new negotiating system: The government said it compensated the unions because the process made contract talks longer and more complex than they were supposed to be.

The revelations about the money came on Wednesday, after The Globe and Mail uncovered a $1-million payment to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, which represents public high school teachers. The Globe subsequently obtained a copy of the deal the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association and the province reached in August. The 54-page document, marked “highly confidential,” shows OECTA also received $1-million.

“The Crown shall pay to OECTA the sum of one million dollars ($1,000,000) to offset the cost of central collective bargaining no later than ninety (90) days after the ratification of the final OECTA local collective agreement,” the deal says.

The Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens, meanwhile, confirmed it received $500,000. AEFO is a smaller union, with 10,000 teachers, compared to 60,000 in OSSTF and 50,000 in OECTA. “AEFO negotiated [$500,000] to compensate some of its operating costs associated with central bargaining and it is important to note it is not tied to services offered to students,” AEFO president Carol Jolin said in a statement.

Ms. Sandals said it is “not unusual” for the government to cover the union’s cost of negotiating. In fact, she said, the province has been doing it since the Liberals came to power in 2003, when the government decided to get directly involved in negotiations rather than leaving everything to the school boards.

“During those provincial discussion tables, we actually funded the negotiations in the sense that we supported the negotiating costs of both the school boards and the unions,” Ms. Sandals told reporters after Question Period. “So, in fact, there was precedent.”

Ms. Sandals would not give further details, such as how much the province paid in the past, when it was paid and to which unions.

For the latest talks, the government put in place a process in which larger contract issues are negotiated centrally by the government and smaller ones locally. The new process was longer and more intensive than previous rounds, and therefore more expensive for the unions. Ms. Sandals said that now the government has been through the process once, future talks will not be as laborious.

“Because there has never been a central agreement before, we had to negotiate each and every clause in the agreement. This has been an unusually dragged-out process because it’s the first time we’ve done it,” she said.

Struggling with an $8.5-billion deficit, the government has promised to make all labour deals “net-zero,” meaning raises must be offset by cuts elsewhere.

Teachers in OSSTF and OECTA received raises of 1.5 per cent, plus lump-sum payments of 1 per cent. OSSTF’s pay hikes were partly financed with $20-million that had been diverted from a program to help struggling students graduate. That money was supposed to be paid into the secondary programming enhancement fund in 2012, but the government deferred the payment at the time as a cost-saving measure. In negotiations this year, the province agreed it would instead put it into the pay hike.

Ms. Sandals on Wednesday defended this decision, saying the money was no longer needed because more students were graduating.

“When we came to the negotiations this time, we looked and we said, ‘You know what? We’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve, we’ve hired a lot of additional teachers, the graduation rate has gone up. We don’t need to defer this program for hiring any longer, we can just cancel it,’<TH>” she said.

OECTA’s pay bump was paid for by diverting money from secondary programming and elementary professional learning, and through a new program to discourage teachers from taking unnecessary sick days. The secondary programming funding was for hiring new teachers. Professional learning funding pays for professional development, in which teachers can take sessions on everything from different teaching techniques to helping their students stay healthy.

OECTA president Ann Hawkins would not discuss these provisions of the contract in detail. She would say only that her union “didn’t give up anything” to get the raise and lump-sum payment. She said the $1-million does not cover all of OECTA’s negotiating costs. Since the government created the negotiating system, she said, it should pay these expenses for the union.

“The government moved to a brand-new process, and the costs on us have been extraordinary. We had 47 days in active bargaining and many more preparing,” she said. “No one thought it would be this complicated.”

The province’s fourth teachers’ union, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said it has not received any government money to cover its negotiating costs and will not accept any if it is offered. ETFO is the only teachers’ union that has not yet settled.

“I want to emphasize that we have not accepted any funds from the government to cover any of ETFO’s costs incurred in participating in the bargaining process,” union president Sam Hammond said in a statement.

News of the payments fired up Question Period, where Ms. Sandals faced a grilling by Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown.

“The Liberal government has botched teacher negotiations and they cut back on vital programming for students,” he said.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the payment constituted an admission that the government’s collective bargaining process is not working well.

“They’ve now acknowledged that the process they put together to deal with the collective bargaining was a failure. That’s what that money was all about,” she said.

The Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation called on the government to cancel the payouts. CTF Ontario director Christine Van Geyn said paying the union’s costs for bargaining reduces the incentive to settle quickly.

“Taxpayers should not be responsible for paying for both sides of this negotiation,” she said. “By agreeing to pay for the union’s negotiation costs, the union no longer bears any of the financial risk of throwing up road blocks in the process.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the elementary teachers’ union would accept funds from the government if they are offered. In fact, union said it would not accept any funds from the government.

The Globe and Mail – Corrected version
Published Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015 4:31PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015 7:16AM EDT