Ontario's Liberal government will support an audit into its $3.74-million in secret payments to teachers' unions, opening the books to an independent investigation into whether the money was worth spending to buy labour peace.
The move came the same day the province reached tentative contracts with elementary school teachers and support staff, ending weeks of work-to-rule and capping tense negotiations that lasted more than a year.
The agreements solve the government's toughest and most politically charged labour problem: Teachers are a key part of the Liberals' base and big spenders at election time – their unions have poured more than $6.5-million into the past three provincial campaigns. Disruptions in the schools capture public attention and whip up anger like no other labour dispute, which means keeping the teachers on side is imperative for the Liberals.
Education Minister Liz Sandals said the new deals with the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) – the first to be reached since The Globe and Mail exposed the union payouts last month – contain no such money.
The Liberal government has been making payments to school unions since 2008, but they were kept secret. Under mounting pressure, the Liberals agreed on Monday to support a Progressive Conservative legislative committee motion to call in Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk.
"The answer is yes," Deputy Premier Deb Matthews said in Question Period as Tory MPPs grilled the Liberals on whether they would back an audit. "We are supportive of having the Auditor-General look at this."
The motion, tabled by PC MPP Lisa MacLeod at the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, asks Ms. Lysyk to determine where the government found the money for the payments and if they are "a fair and reasonable use of government resources." The Liberals control a majority of seats on legislative committees, so their support is crucial for the motion.
Ms. Lysyk told The Globe on Monday she is waiting for official word from the committee, which will vote on Wednesday.
The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA) and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens each received government payments as part of labour deals reached in August. They also received payments in previous rounds of bargaining.
The Liberals have said they made the payments to compensate the unions for their negotiating costs, because the government set up a complicated and more expensive system. Critics say the unions, which collect dues from their members, should pay their own costs.
ETFO has never received any payments and vowed during negotiations not to accept any if offered.
CUPE reached a deal with the province on Monday morning, and ETFO in the afternoon. Ms. Sandals said neither union will receive a payment to cover bargaining costs, but would not say why.
"It was a case of the circumstances being slightly different," she said at a Queen's Park news conference minutes after signing the ETFO deal. "If you look at the history of similar payments, you find that in different years, different unions arrived at getting payments or not getting payments."
As part of the agreements, ETFO and CUPE agreed to end their work-to-rule job actions. This means teachers will return to extracurricular activities and will provide full report cards, including comments this semester. The report cards will be delayed until Dec. 11.
Ms. Sandals said the ETFO deal is similar to ones reached with OSSTF and OECTA in August, which contained 1.5 per cent raises and 1 per cent lump-sum payments. She said the raises are "net zero," meaning something was cut in the contract to pay for them. Ms. Sandals would not reveal what.
"This round of bargaining has been exceptionally lengthy and difficult, but in the end we achieved a tentative agreement that ETFO believes is fair and meets the needs of our members," ETFO president Sam Hammond said in a statement. "ETFO is a democratic organization and ultimately it is the membership that will determine whether this tentative agreement is acceptable."
The ETFO and CUPE deals came after Ms. Sandals threatened to allow school boards to dock up to 10 per cent of teachers' and support workers' pay by giving them the right to unilaterally impose new wages and working conditions. Ms. Sandals said that move helped focus the discussions.
"I think they understood … that we were actually serious," she said.
Ms. Sandals on Monday gave boards the power to dock the pay of high school support staff workers who have not reached a deal and are continuing a work-to-rule.
"Schools have become increasingly dirty, and we're increasingly concerned about the health and safety and well being of our students. This cannot go on," she said. "They are also unwilling to stop their job action."
In an e-mail, Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, said he is not planning to use this power.
"The short answer is no," he wrote in an e-mail on Monday. "We are confident we will work forward."
Anne Gerson, spokeswoman for L'Association des conseils scolaires des écoles publiques de l'Ontario, said it had made no decision on whether to dock pay.
With a report from Selena Ross