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Education Minister Laurel Broten talks during a news conference after a meeting of provincial and federal environment ministers in Toronto, Monday, May 28, 2007.

NATHAN DENETTE/Nathan Denette/Canadian Press

Faced with a gaping deficit, the historically education-friendly Ontario Liberals are playing hardball with teachers, calling for salary freezes and cutting retirement payouts of unused sick days, according to documents released by the unions.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, in a scathing letter to its members, called the province's initial offer "offensive" and said it will not participate in two days of talks with the province that were scheduled for early next week.

Meanwhile, the union for public secondary school teachers held a meeting Wednesday evening to discuss the government's offer, which it denounced as "unacceptable" and "an unprecedented attack on members' rights."

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The offer that has teachers' unions up in arms includes freezing salaries until August, 2014, according to a copy of the government's "parameters" obtained by The Globe and Mail.

Retirement payouts of unused sick days would end. Instead, each teacher can take six sick days per year at full salary and up to 24 weeks at two-thirds salary. Sick days would no longer be allowed to be carried forward.

The government does not want to increase its level of contribution to pension plans, ETFO president Sam Hammond wrote.

Dalton McGuinty has styled himself as the education Premier, bringing in new programs such as full-day kindergarten and championing student test scores. But as Ontario faces a $16-billion deficit, the minority Liberal government is putting its foot down and taking a harder line.

The teachers' four-year contracts do not expire until the end of August, but the government wants new deals in March, ahead of the provincial budget, both unions said in the letters to their members

A spokeswoman for the Minister of Education declined to discuss specifics of the initial offer but did not dispute the unions' version of what's on the table.

In February, a teleconference was held with Mr. McGuinty and Minister of Education Laurel Broten. The government's team of three lawyers, one of them a retired judge, presented "an austerity proposal" that would be part of a two-year agreement, the unions said.

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"To say we were insulted is an understatement," Mr. Hammond said in his letter. Mr. McGuinty said teachers "would not like" parts of the proposal, Mr. Hammond wrote.

"We find the tone and, most significantly, the content of the government's parameters to be offensive," he wrote, later adding it's a "mean-spirited" proposal.

Mr. Hammond was not available for comment Wednesday.

When the province negotiated with teachers close to four years ago, discussions with the union for public elementary teachers went months beyond when the contract expired.

Eventually, a salary increase of 10.4 per cent over four years was agreed upon. Secondary school teachers represented by OSSTF were given an increase of 12.55 per cent over four years.

Ms. Broten's spokeswoman, Paris Meilleur, declined to comment on the parameters themselves or the shift in relations between the province and teachers.

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"We have confidence in the process," she said. "It's not appropriate to speak to the specifics at this point."

With a report from Adam Radwanski

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