EDMONTON – More provincial workers are joining Alberta’s prison guards in a wildcat strike, according to their union, while the government counters the union is spreading rumours and many guards are actually returning to work.
Tyler Bedford, a spokesman for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, announced Sunday that provincial sheriffs in Edmonton and Calgary will join the strike by hundreds of jail guards who are ignoring a provincial labour board order to return to work.
The sheriffs are members of the same AUPE local as the guards.
“Provincial sheriffs in Edmonton and Calgary voted overwhelmingly to support the striking guards,” said Bedford, who noted the sheriffs patrol highways and also provide security in courthouses and prisoner escorts.
Deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk, however, said some guards have chosen to return to their posts. It was only about a dozen, he said, but he added others have been phoning supervisors for advice on how they could return to their jobs.
“I know there’s intimidation. It’s hard to break away from a group. But it’s the right thing to do,” Lukaszuk said during a news conference at the legislature on Sunday.
There have also been union members who have remained at their jobs inside the jails, Lukaszuk said.
Lukaszuk said no guards have been charged yet, and wouldn’t say if any will be charged soon, although he said many have been issued notices to comply with labour board rulings that have called their strike illegal.
The labour dispute was triggered late last week by the suspension of an employee at the Edmonton Remand Centre who complained about safety issues.
Guards at several other detention centres walked off the job in protest and Guy Smith of the AUPE has encouraged workers to “stand strong.”
Inmates have been restricted to their jail cells and striking staff have been either replaced by municipal police or RCMP officers who are backing up correctional supervisors.
Tim Grant, the deputy solicitor general, said the courts will continue to operate Monday as usual with managers, RCMP and city police filling in for sheriffs.
“We’ve made contact with all of our chief judges. They’re aware of our plans and are supportive of them,” Grant told the news conference.
Lukaszuk said previous unrest among inmates that had been reported at the beginning of the dispute had been quelled and that order has been restored.
Maggie O’Shaughnessy, a Calgary defence lawyer, said she’s heard from clients who say they’re in danger. Even though there’s a lockdown at the city’s remand centre, she explained that her clients have told her that inmates on a cell block are allowed out once a day for a brief period and that everyone rushes to the phones.
She said the RCMP officers who are watching don’t know important information, like which inmates are in gangs.
“They’ve told me there are a lot of fights. There’s fights all the time there, but there’s normally guards there to control it,” O’Shaughnessy said.
The government released a statement to corrections staff Sunday afternoon which said the province wanted to help them return to work.
“Some of you have returned to work, and others have said they would like to return to work but feel intimidated. We are aware of these union pressure tactics, which include misinformation being distributed,” the statement said.
Bedford conceded that some guards may have returned to work at some facilities but he couldn’t say which ones.
“The thing about these wildcats is they’re organized at the worksite and not out of the union office,” Bedford said.
He said he couldn’t speak to accusations by the government about rumours because he didn’t know who started them.
Solicitor General Jonathan Denis said arrangements are being made to bring in extra RCMP officers from other provinces. He told the news conference Sunday that they would be arriving Sunday.
The guards’ union has said the suspension of the union member on Friday was the last straw for correctional officers who have complained about the design of the new Edmonton Remand Centre.
Just days before the jail opened, the AUPE said it found five pages of design flaws after touring the facility. At that time, the union asked the provincial government to delay the transfer of prisoners from the old remand centre until the changes were made.
Lukaszuk reiterated Sunday that the facility was deemed safe by occupational health and safety workers, which he noted were also members of the AUPE.
He said the union has presented a list of 10 demands that must be met before the guards will return to work, but he said health and safety is only one of the items on the list. He noted the union is in the middle of collective bargaining and suggested they might be using the strike as a pressure tactic.
“Albertans would be appalled if they found out that as deputy premier I am bypassing a collective bargaining structure and making side deals over a cup of coffee in a coffee shop with a union leader. That would simply be inappropriate,” Lukaszuk said.
“So the union has a table at which to negotiate. I encourage them to get back to that table and continue with those negotiations,” he continued”
“I have been very clear. Until they return to work, there will be no discussions.”
O’Shaughnessy said she has 18 clients who are inmates in remand in Calgary who are stuck in cells that are seven feet by 12 feet for almost 24 hours a day, with one or two other people, who are getting cold food and can’t shower.
She said she expects chaos in court on Monday and that she’ll have to have most of her cases put over until a later date because her clients won’t be able to get to court or because she hasn’t been able to speak with them.
She said she tried, unsuccessfully, to visit some of them on the weekend.
“I was told by the deputy director of the facility that it was simply too unsafe to bring them to the interview rooms to see me,” she said.