It has recently come to light that the Ontario Liberal government, with Education Minister Liz Sandals at the helm, has betrayed the public’s trust by a) secretly distributing $2.5 million to three teachers’ unions during tense negotiations in the Summer of 2015 and b) not asking for the expense receipts. To truly understand the recent double doozy, it would serve well to go back to the summer of 2012 and explore this government’s motivations regarding education labour disputes.
In 2012, Dalton McGuinty was Premier, Lauren Broten was Minister of Education, and Kathleen Wynne was simultaneously Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, and Minister of Aboriginal Affairs. The government was “facilitating agreements between the unions that represent school board employees and the school board trustee associations that represent school boards,” but when the Ontario Catholic Schools Trustees Association (OCSTA) abandoned negotiations, the government moved in and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in their place. In February of that year, the Ministry invited both union and trustee representatives to discuss the government’s future financial outlook as their contracts were set to expire that August. The government advocated for a two-year wage freeze, the elimination of accumulated sick days, a short-term sick leave plan valid for up to 24 weeks at ⅔ salary, and for resumed negotiations with the Ontario’s Teacher Federation (OTF) to ultimately negotiate reductions in employee pension plan benefits. Just eight months later, on November 2nd, 2012, Kathleen Wynne announced her bid for Liberal leadership, won the tightly contested race at her party’s convention in late January 2013, and was subsequently sworn in as Premier of Ontario on February 11th, 2013.
It’s worth pausing here for two reasons. First, prior to 2010, Wynne served as Minister of Education for four years and, therefore, is familiar with the backdoor politics of the unions that represent 245,000 teachers province-wide. Second, this Liberal government had already been accused of cozying up to the teachers’ union when it gave teachers a staggering $468 million back in 2013 for a multitude of reasons, including more unpaid sick days, hiring substitutes to replace the teachers who are taking sick days, subsidizing teachers who don’t take six sick days a year, and “[compensating] school boards for increased expenses because of the new deals.” When asked about this in 2014, Minister Sandals walked away from reporters when peppered with questions about the refund. If you need a sick day after reading this about-face, I can’t blame you.
So, fast-forward to today: the Liberal government has since won a majority but can’t seem to find a steady identity. On one hand, kudos to the Liberals for standing their ground on the highly controversial sex education curriculum update, something that is sure to appease teachers but risks losing the support of voting parents, some of whom have pulled their children out of school. On the other hand, they haven’t flinched with regards to privatizing Hydro One, despite heavy opposition and a controversy over the CEO’s $4 million salary. Then there were also allegations and eventual OPP charges of bribing a candidate not to run in a by-election in Sudbury last Spring. Additionally, in what seems like an effort to ease the municipal infrastructure deficit that has belaboured cities, the Liberals will reportedly introduce the Toronto-only municipal land transfer tax on home purchases province-wide. The speculation is that this will cause a surge in home buying, particularly in the 905 area code and other suburbs around Toronto. It’s safe to assume this will be met with disdain from Ontarians, especially considering our provincial household debt level was above the national average in 2012, according to the most recent data available from Statistics Canada.
And now this latest scandal: several million dollars of taxpayer money paid to the teachers’ unions. Amidst threats from the government to start docking pay if the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario – the remaining union without a contract – doesn’t end their work to rule by November 1st, the Globe and Mail obtained access to the secret contract negotiations detailing Minister Sandals’ $1 million payoff to the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers’ Federation. This is in addition to the $1-million paid to the Catholic teachers’ union and $500,000 to the French teachers’ union to buy labour peace. Then Minister Sandals, when asked in Question Period about whether or not she obtained receipts from the unions during these negotiations, responded,
“You’re asking me if I have receipts and invoices, no I don’t…We know how long we’ve been at the hotel. We know what hotel rooms cost. We know what the meeting rooms cost. We know what the food costs. We know what 100 pizzas costs. You don’t need to see every bill when you’re doing an estimate of costs.”
Speaking at Queen’s Park, Minister Sandals defended the costs by explaining that “the transition to a new bargaining system made this round quite lengthy” and the payments were made in order to “to support the meetings taking place.”
While the costs the unions had to pay is relatively easy to estimate, why would Minister Sandals and her Ministry not just go through the motions and audit the receipts to at least be able to provide some peace of mind when their constituents would (inevitably) find out their money was being spent without their consent…again. And why wouldn’t a union, whose members pay dues, be able to cover their side of the costs of renegotiation? On the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario website, for example, the first bullet under “How Are Your Dues Spent?” is collective bargaining.
Does this government feel insulated because they have a majority? Are they riding on the laurels of their massive win in last year’s provincial election, and now also riding the coattails of their big sibling’s ascendance in Ottawa? Do they just not care what people think about them? The answer remains incalculably unclear but this government needs to get its act together and stop being the face of irresponsibility and unaccountability, or in three years they’ll find themselves eating pizza in hotels without anyone to cover the costs.
Jonathan Kates is a is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance. He holds a bilingual Bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Glendon, and his areas of interests are education, social policy, cities, and government accountability. His favourite food group is pizza.