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Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario responds to Education Minister Laurel Broten's comments in Toronto, Ont on Thursday, April 12, 2012.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Two Ontario by-elections, which could affect the balance of power in that province's minority legislature, have been scheduled for the first week of the school year – a time when the government's ongoing fight with teachers' unions could spill over into the classroom. At first glance a strange decision by self-styled "education Premier" Dalton McGuinty, it should give pause to even the most militant labour leaders, if Mr. McGuinty's threat to legislate new contracts has not given them pause already.

Mr. McGuinty's Liberals are clearly banking on extremely limited public sympathy for the teachers. It is not hard to see why. Teachers have enjoyed large pay increases under Mr. McGuinty's watch, while maintaining a generous pension plan and other benefits. Ontarians who have felt the impact of economic difficulties likely believe it's time to spread the pain, as the province tackles a $15-billion deficit.

Some union leaders have grasped this reality. Last month, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association signed a framework agreement with the government, which included giving up the "banking" of sick days and accepting unpaid days off in the next two years; spreading some sacrifices allowed it to avoid measures that would have disproportionately affected younger teachers. This week, it was announced that a smaller union representing francophone teachers had followed OECTA's lead. (The deals must still be accepted by some reluctant school boards.) But the province's two biggest teachers' unions, particularly the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, are digging in their heels.

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Those unions are playing with fire. Even if they succeed in turning the public against the Liberals, it will be as part of general anger toward all concerned in the dispute. That probably wouldn't help the provincial New Democrats, the only party that could potentially side with the teachers; it could benefit Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, who proposes union-busting measures that Mr. McGuinty would never dream of.

It is a strange situation the teachers' unions have been placed in, with an erstwhile friendly government suddenly relishing conflict with them. They should recognize, however, that it is less a whim than a reflection of the times.

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