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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Finance Minister Charles Sousa appear at a press conference following the passing of the provincial budget at Queen's Park June 11, 2013. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Finance Minister Charles Sousa appear at a press conference following the passing of the provincial budget at Queen's Park June 11, 2013. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

The price of goodwill with teachers’ unions: $112-million a year Add to ...

It does not come cheap, the goodwill with Ontario’s teachers that Kathleen Wynne’s government has been trying to buy back.

This week it was announced that the province will spend an extra $112-million annually to give the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario a 2-per-cent salary increase, bringing its members square with those of the province’s other teachers’ unions after ETFO negotiators misplayed their hand a few years ago. Along with those other unions, the ETFO also secured increased compensation for sick days after Ms. Wynne’s predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, ended the “banking” of them.

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Even among some of Ms. Wynne’s Liberals, there has been head-scratching about how exactly a government still roughly $10-billion in the hole can afford this.

The short answer is that it can’t – not if it’s just about getting the teachers’ unions back behind the Liberals in the next election.

The hope has to be that the recent concessions are also about something more noble: paving the way for major structural changes in the next round of negotiations, in 2014.

For all the uproar about the contracts imposed by Mr. McGuinty, many of their key components – freezes to cost-of-living increases, mandatory unpaid days off – were about short-term reductions to the deficit rather than long-term savings. Notably, the former premier backed off what seemed to be the most substantive and contentious of his cost-cutting efforts.

Initially, the government appeared determined to overhaul the salary grid, which allows teachers to all but automatically reach annual salaries approaching $100,000 after 10 years of employment. But in the agreement with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association that served as the template for contracts imposed on other unions, it settled for slowing grid movement for a couple of years and studying more significant changes during that period.

With that study period theoretically coming to an end next year, there are rumblings about the government taking another run at it. One possibility discussed by some insiders is to flatten the grid so it takes perhaps 15 or 20 years for teachers to reach the maximum possible salary.

That wouldn’t be as ambitious as, say, trying to find ways to tie salary increases to merit. But it is nevertheless the sort of thing that to this point unions have considered a nuclear option.

Alternatively, or perhaps additionally, Ms. Wynne could opt for changing the class-size caps that Mr. McGuinty introduced to great fanfare – and that Don Drummond held up in his government-commissioned report as an example of poor value. While Mr. McGuinty had zero interest in rolling back one of his signature policies, officials in Ms. Wynne’s government seem more open to it.

Last year, there was some willingness on the unions’ part to consider slightly larger class sizes as a tradeoff for taking other cost-cutting measures off the table. But whether Ms. Wynne’s more conciliatory tone has made the teachers take such possibilities more or less seriously remains to be seen.

Throughout the ugly labour battle that extended into early 2013, when extracurricular services were being withdrawn and one-day walkouts staged, labour leaders insisted they were protesting the trampling of their collective bargaining rights more than specific restraint measures. Considering that Ms. Wynne is currently going beyond additional dollars and trying to work with unions to establish an agreeable negotiation process, that claim may soon be put to the test.

All this presumes that Ms. Wynne will still be in the premier’s office when the next deals are struck, which is no sure thing. But if she is, we’ll find out what that goodwill is really worth.

aradwanski@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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