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Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals speaks to the media at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Feb. 23.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

Teacher and support staff unions that received secret payments from Ontario's Liberal government have poured more than $6.5-million into the past three election campaigns – much of it spent on ads attacking the Progressive Conservatives – and donated nearly $800,000 to the Liberals over the past decade.

A Globe and Mail review of campaign finance documents has found the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association and Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation are big spenders at election time, bankrolling campaigns targeting the PCs on their own and through the labour umbrella group Working Families. Both unions also gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to the Ontario Liberal Party.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, meanwhile, has also run election-time campaigns, albeit more modest ones. And one of its locals, which represents Toronto education workers, has given tens of thousands of dollars to the Liberals. The smaller Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO) has contributed sums ranging from $1,100 to $9,400 to the Liberals in recent years.

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The revelations come on the heels of reports in The Globe that the government has paid the four unions $3.74-million since 2008 to help cover their costs during collective bargaining.

The government started making the payments after it got directly involved in education labour negotiations instead of leaving them entirely to school boards. The purpose of the payments, the province has said, was to compensate the unions for the extra cost of having to bargain with the province as well as locally. The payments were not made public until last week, when The Globe obtained a copy of the province's most recent deal with OSSTF.

Education Minister Liz Sandals maintained on Monday that the unions' assistance to the Liberals at election time did not influence government decisions to give them money.

"I've been working with teacher unions since 1988 when I was first elected as a trustee. In trustee elections, sometimes they supported me, something they didn't. In provincial elections, sometimes they support, sometimes they didn't," she said. "That actually has nothing to do with anything … it isn't about who politically supports who."

Unions are a potent force in elections. With no limits on third-party campaign spending in Ontario, organized labour often rivals the political parties in the amount of money it spends mobilizing members and running ads.

OECTA put down $2,174,433 on its election-related activities in 2014, and $1,918,541 in 2011, and contributed $250,000 to Working Families in each of those years. OSSTF spent $386,454 in 2014, and gave Working Families $250,000 that year, plus $100,000 in 2011 and 2007.

The results were sharp anti-PC campaigns.

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One Working Families television ad during the 2014 election, for instance, described the Tories as an "old boys' club," and depicted shadowy men in suits swilling Scotch and smoking cigars. "They want more corporate tax cuts for their friends," an announcer intoned, over a close-up shot of one well-heeled man blowing smoke rings.

Another spot showed a cartoon of then-PC leader Tim Hudak resembling Pinocchio. "Tim Hudak will say anything to get elected. He says he'll protect working people, children and seniors," the voice-over said as Mr. Hudak's cartoon nose steadily grew. "But Hudak knows his plan cuts 100,000 jobs."

Both OECTA and OSSTF have also given the Liberals substantial sums through various avenues. Elections Ontario maintains a donation cap of $9,975, but contributors can donate more during any writ period, including general elections and by-elections. Unions can also donate through all of their locals, and corporations through all of their subsidiaries.

In 2011, for instance, OECTA gave $79,108, with the money flowing from both central office and 16 different locals; some contributions were made under the regular cap, others during the election campaign. OSSTF donated $65,150 through the central union and six locals. OSSTF also got involved in the Liberal leadership race in 2013, with the union's Toronto local giving $10,000 each to Kathleen Wynne and Eric Hoskins, and $5,000 to Gerard Kennedy.

OECTA officials said president Ann Hawkins was not available for an interview on Monday; OSSTF president Paul Elliott did not respond to a request for comment.

AEFO's contributions were more modest. The union did not spend any money on campaigning at election time, but gave $18,300 to the Liberals since 2011.

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In a statement, AEFO president Carol Jolin declined to discuss the donations but defended the government payments to his union.

"Negotiating reimbursements for bargaining is not an unusual practice of the bargaining process," he said. "That being said, at the beginning of the current round, AEFO proposed alternating negotiations between Ottawa and Toronto in order to reduce our costs [the provincial office for AEFO is based in Ottawa], but this was not acceptable to the two trustee associations and the government."

The picture for CUPE, meanwhile, is complicated.

The union is a member of the opposition NDP, and has not always had a good relationship with the Liberals. At the moment, for instance, CUPE is at the centre of an organized labour campaign against the government's plan to privatize Hydro One. A CUPE local representing education workers in Toronto, however, has given $44,440 to the Liberals over the past 10 years.

CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn said the current round of negotiations, which come as the government tries to balance the budget by cutting spending, has been particularly tough.

"We don't receive benefits from [the Liberals] and, in fact, we have been having significant numbers of fights with them," he said. "There have been a series of things on which we've been saying 'You're headed in the wrong direction.'"

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CUPE's campaign dollars – which amounted to $176,400 in 2014, $81,014 in 2011 and $112,249 in 2007 – were primarily used on programs encouraging its members to vote, he said.

CUPE is still negotiating with the government. OSSTF, OECTA and AEFO reached deals with the province in August. Also still negotiating is the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario. ETFO has never received a payment from government for bargaining expenses, and has vowed not to accept one if offered.

Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown said he found it hard to believe the unions really needed extra money from the government to fund bargaining. He took aim at Ms. Sandals' contention that the money went towards renting hotel rooms for bargaining sessions and ordering pizza to feed hungry negotiators.

"I'm not sure where the minister buys her pizza, but the pepperoni must be gold-plated," he said in Question Period on Monday. "Will the Premier come clean and tell the legislature, tell the people of Ontario, what this money was really for?"

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the fact the government felt the need to pay for the unions' costs showed it had mishandled negotiations and let them drag on too long.

"This mess has been created by a government that was asleep at the switch and not taking seriously the chaos and problems it was causing," she said.

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