Premier Kathleen Wynne is defending her government's secret $3.74-million in payments to teacher unions as simply the price of securing labour peace.
In an interview in Beijing at the end of a week-long trade mission in China, Ms. Wynne said the province's negotiations with teachers were "a successful process" and the unions' and government's financial statuses are not "germane to the issue."
The Premier said her priorities were to avoid strikes and to ensure labour deals are "net zero," meaning that any raises or other new costs have to be paid for by cutting something else in the contract.
"We set out to negotiate agreements and I had two objectives: One was, and it was the primary one, to avoid labour disruption for the students in the province. And, equally important, was that we operate within a net-zero context," she said. "Both those targets, both those objectives, were reached. It's been a successful process."
The negotiations, which dragged on for more than a year, did involve some local strikes – including by high-school teachers at two large suburban Toronto school boards – but Ms. Wynne legislated them back to work.
The payments started in 2008, when Ms. Wynne was education minister, and continued through two subsequent rounds of bargaining.
The payouts only became public last month after The Globe and Mail obtained copies of two of the labour contracts. That prompted the government to release numbers on the full amounts over the past seven years. It also sparked a probe by Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk, and a promise from Ms. Wynne to seek receipts from the unions – which Education Minister Liz Sandals had previously insisted were not necessary – to verify the unions' bargaining costs.
Critics have argued that teacher unions, which collect dues from tens of thousands of members, should pay their own negotiating costs. These criticisms have only intensified in recent days, after The Globe discovered that the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation had $65-million in financial reserves at the same time as it negotiated its most recent payout.
But twice in the interview, Ms. Wynne said those finances are unimportant. "The details of a particular union or a federation's finances really are not germane."
Later, she added: "It's not germane to the issue, any more than the details of what money may be earmarked in government is germane to the negotiations. The fact is: We set out parameters, we said we were operating within a net zero. We operated within a net zero. We avoided labour disruptions. Those were the objectives and we met them."
The government decided to start making the payments after it began getting directly involved in negotiations, instead of leaving them entirely up to local school boards.
This has led to a "two-tier" bargaining system: one round of central negotiations between the province and the unions, in which major financial issues such as wages are settled, followed by local negotiations, in which smaller matters such as working conditions are addressed.
The government decided to compensate unions' negotiating costs because provincial discussions added more time and complication to the talks, which cost the unions more.
"Well, because we were still, even in 2008, dealing with the provincial process," Ms. Wynne said when asked why she started the compensation in the first place.