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Kathleen Wynne, Ontario's teacher-friendly Premier, has some explaining to do. Why has her government been slipping secret payments to teachers' unions to cover their bargaining costs with the province? Surely, the millions and millions the unions collect in member dues should be sufficient. Could it be a token of appreciation for all the money the unions have contributed to help the Liberals get re-elected? Just asking.

One thing we do know. Despite the drama and the posturing that accompany each round of bargaining, the teachers' unions have made out like bandits. That's because the relationship between the government and the unions is deeply incestuous. The government needs the teachers' support and is unwilling to seriously challenge them at bargaining time. As a result, the teachers are the most privileged public-sector workers in Ontario, as well as in many other provinces.

Can we afford it? The answer is no.

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Try this question on your friends. What's a fair salary for a fourth-grade teacher? Think of someone with about 10 years' experience who works standard teacher's hours, and has lots of paid preparation time, good benefits, job security and summers off. Does $94,707 sound about right? That's what elementary teachers at the top of the scale make at the Toronto District School Board.

In Ontario, three-quarters of teachers are at the top of the pay scale, according to a recent C.D. Howe report. This means that, on average, teachers are at the 85th income percentile of all the full-time workers in the province. That doesn't count their pensions which, on average, they collect for a whopping 32 years. (Teachers retire young and are exceptionally long-lived.)

How did this happen? In the giddy years after the Liberals came to power in 2003, teacher salaries went up by 20 per cent to 25 per cent. And the government went on a hiring binge, even as school enrolments fell. In 2002, Ontario spent $7,201 per pupil on education. It now spends $11,451.

Ontario is knee-deep in debt, so Ms. Wynne and her Education Minister have pledged "net-zero" raises from now on. But their record of payouts to keep the unions onside does not inspire confidence. And with all the wrangling about class size, prep time and sick days, it's impossible to figure out the true net costs of these deals.

Yet, teachers don't flourish only under Liberal rule. Even in Conservative Alberta, teachers went from among the worst-paid to among the best-paid members of society. Alberta's teachers top out at $99,112, according to the C.D. Howe report. Manitoba's top out at $94,466, which puts them at the 93rd percentile of income in the province. B.C.'s teachers top out at a relatively modest $81,534, which suggests that there's plenty of room for restraint in Ontario – providing there's the will.

Teachers flourish because public-sector unions have unique advantages. They have virtually no competition. They can operate as inefficiently as they want and never go bankrupt. They are masters at resisting accountability and entrenching rigid work rules that protect their members. Unlike private-sector unions, they don't have to worry that their employer will go out of business. They can count on an endless supply of money, courtesy of the taxpayer. And if the money runs out, they can always lean on politicians to raise taxes.

Government unions are always lobbying for bigger government and higher taxes, because that means more members, more money and more power for them. Teachers' unions have an extra edge because teachers are popular, and there are so many of them, and because teacher strikes are an awful nuisance to so many people. Governments hate teacher strikes because they know the public will blame them, too.

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So when cuts must be made, it's easier to cut something else. This year, Ontario unilaterally cut doctors' fees by 4.45 per cent, and that may be just the start. The doctors howled, but nobody cared or even noticed. Most people figure that doctors have it pretty good, and the public will only start to notice when there aren't enough of them. If the government tried to cut teachers' salaries by the same amount, people would notice right away. There would be riots at Queen's Park and chaos in the schools, and the teachers would be furious for a decade.

The inevitable close dealings between governments and public-sector unions leave out one crucial party – the public. Its interests will never be as important as governments' interest in buying labour peace, or the unions' interest in expanding the powers and privileges of its members. But the world is changing fast. Jobs for life are disappearing. Technology is making old hierarchies and bureaucracies obsolete. Innovation and flexibility are increasingly critical to success. And government unions are pricing themselves out of the market. In the slow-growth era that probably lies ahead, the old ways will make less and less sense.

We love our teachers. But a world in which fourth-grade teachers make so much more than most people is a world we can't sustain.

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