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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne listens to comments from across the floor at Queen's Park on March 4, 2013. Ms. Wynne’s government has made peace with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, but does so at a steeper price than previously thought. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne listens to comments from across the floor at Queen's Park on March 4, 2013. Ms. Wynne’s government has made peace with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, but does so at a steeper price than previously thought. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

ADAM RADWANSKI

Making peace with Ontario teachers comes at a price Add to ...

So much for it all just being about goodwill.

When the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario agreed last week to end its months-long protest and return extracurriculars to schools, the word out of government was that it was a sign of growing trust between the two sides. No major concessions had yet been made; if anything, ETFO’s climbdown was a prerequisite to future ones for the union, in recognition of Premier Kathleen Wynne’s willingness to be flexible in a way Dalton McGuinty wasn’t.

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Now, it has emerged that the rapprochement is in fact coming at a price: increased compensation to teachers for giving up the “banking” of sick days. And more worrisome than any immediate cost is the prospect that the labour battles of the past few months are being followed by a period of peacemaking that suggest they weren’t worth it in the first place.

The concession in question is not necessarily unreasonable. When Mr. McGuinty’s Liberals imposed new contracts at the start of this year, older teachers got to keep the sick days they had banked to date and cash them out on retirement; those with less than a decade’s experience lost theirs, and were compensated with 10 cents on the dollar for each of them.

This week, it emerged that the latter group – which clearly got the worse deal initially – will get 25 cents on the dollar instead.

More dubious is the government’s contention that the additional payout, to which other teachers’ unions will also be entitled, won’t cost extra because the imposed contracts were more effective at cost-containment than initially projected. However the numbers are moved around, the fact remains that a chunk of savings are being given up in order to end the protest.

Even if it costs more than $60-million, as the opposition Progressive Conservatives claim, that one-time payout is relative chump change when it comes to the province’s finances. But what matters from the perspective of trying to balance the province’s books by 2017-18 and get them onto a stable footing thereafter, is that the Liberals didn’t really get to the important long-term stuff before they started buying back peace.

At the outset, the government identified teachers’ salary grid – which allows an almost automatic rise to nearly $100,000 annual pay in the first 10 years of employment – as the most important target for structural savings. The initial plan was to freeze the grid for a couple of years, during which it would be restructured. Then, in striking an agreement used as a template for those imposed on other unions, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association traded a few unpaid days off for continued grid movement.

At the time of that deal, Liberals said there would be ongoing discussions about the grid regardless. That remains the official line. But backtracking on measures to date hardly seems like a warmup for taking on the most contentious of unresolved issues.

The record will show that the unpleasantness of the past few months yielded at least one significant structural change. The end of sick-day banking, however much the compensation, took a sizable liability off the provincial books.

The Liberals are already going further than they would like us to believe in making up for what they’ve done to date, when what they’ve done to date isn’t as substantive as what they set out to do in the first place.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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