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How Ontario premier rejected union leader’s offer to buy LCBO

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The leader of one of Ontario's largest public sector unions has been quietly pressing the government to turn over ownership of its liquor monopoly to his members' pension plan – an idea that earned him a smack-down from Premier Kathleen Wynne's office during June's provincial election.

Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, is one of the Liberal administration's most vocal critics on the left, frequently accusing the government of having a secret plan to privatize public services. But Mr. Thomas, apparently, had also been seeking to have the highly lucrative LCBO sold to the OPSEU pension plan.

In a sarcastic letter dated June 6, a copy of which was later obtained by The Globe and Mail, Ms. Wynne's top aide told him to kiss that dream goodbye.

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"If re-elected, Premier Kathleen Wynne will not be moving ahead with your proposal to sole-source sell the LCBO to OPSEU's pension plan and its private sector partner," Tom Teahen, Ms. Wynne's chief of staff, wrote to Mr. Thomas. "While I know this news will be a disappointment to you personally, no doubt your membership will appreciate Kathleen Wynne's commitment to keep public services public."

A government source said Mr. Thomas had been proposing the sale for more than a year, and it appeared OPSEU had put a lot of thought into how such an arrangement could work financially.

In an interview, Mr. Thomas confirmed that he had proposed to buy the LCBO, but only if the government was planning to sell it anyway.

"What I had repeatedly said…is 'You should never sell the LCBO. But if you're going to sell it, I'll damn well insert myself at the table to take care of our members,'" he said. "[Mr. Teahen] tried to turn that into something sinister because I was giving his boss a hard time."

The Liberals have set up a panel to advise them on how to get more money out of government-owned assets. Everything is on the table, including selling shares in Crown corporations to pension funds or the private sector. The panel has not yet reported to the government, and no decisions have been announced.

Mr. Thomas said the Liberals were upset with him for opposing their budget, whose rejection by the NDP triggered the spring election. Mr. Thomas supported Andrea Horwath's New Democrats during the vote.

"They were pissed off that I didn't support the budget," he said. "I don't care. [Mr. Teahen] can be mad. It doesn't detract from my happiness any."

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Mr. Teahen's sharply-worded missive appears to have been prompted by an earlier letter from Mr. Thomas, in which he accused Ms. Wynne of not being clear on whether or not her plan to balance the provincial budget would lead to job losses in the public sector.

"Don't hide. Tell us. It's an easy question. Are you going to eliminate public sector jobs to fund your budget cuts or not? Yes or no," Mr. Thomas wrote.

In his letter, Mr. Teahen replied that Ms. Wynne would not cut the overall headcount of the public service, saying a re-elected Liberal government would keep at least the same number of jobs in place throughout a four-year mandate.

Then, he needled Mr. Thomas for supporting Ms. Horwath, who promised to cut hundreds of millions more from the annual budget than the Liberals did.

"With respect to Andrea Horwath and the NDP, frankly, we don't know where they stand. They have run a campaign that parrots Rob Ford and drafted a platform that plagiarizes Tim Hudak," Mr. Teahen wrote. "Given your concerns with our platform, we can only assume you and your members are apoplectic with Andrea Horwath. The NDP Leader's promise to slash $600-million is over and above the savings found in our budget. Such a drastic cut makes it impossible for Ms. Horwath to commit to maintaining existing total staffing, as I have."

Mr. Teahen's tone is somewhat at odds with Ms. Wynne's usual conciliatory approach. It does, however, mirror Mr. Thomas's sardonic communications style.

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Despite the sparring between the pair, Mr. Thomas said he looked forward to sitting down with Mr. Teahen and hashing out their differences.

And he said he has a clear message for him on the LCBO.

"They're nuts if they sell it off," he said. "They're just totally out of their corkscrew minds if they sell it."

Adrian Morrow reports on the Ontario legislature in Toronto.

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