EDMONTON – A massive illegal strike of jail guards that was sparked by the suspension of two workers and spread to correctional facilities across Alberta came to an end Tuesday night.
The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees announced in a news release it had struck a deal with the provincial government to get workers back on the job by Wednesday morning.
“Over the last five days, Albertans and Canadians have been made explicitly aware of the health and safety concerns of front-line correctional peace officers,” said union president Guy Smith.
“These officers do a demanding job, in a challenging environment and do so proudly. These officers need to know when they are on duty that their health and safety is protected and that the concerns they raise will be addressed seriously.”
Smith said the agreement specifies the government will hold an occupational health and safety review to investigate concerns that have been raised about the new $580-million Edmonton Remand Centre.
The deal also guarantees there will be no retribution for individual workers who have been involved with the strike. The suspension continues for the original two union members, but with pay.
Deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk suggested on Twitter the government had not made any concessions.
“Nothing new,” he wrote. “(Occupational Health and Safety) must investigate any new reported complaint. I’m glad AUPE made the right decision.”
A similar tone was struck in a letter obtained by The Canadian Press that was sent Tuesday from the government to the union.
“In keeping with the government’s public representations in this regard as well as existing legislation, you have our commitment to investigate all new and specific occupational health and safety concerns related to the centre.”
The letter also hinted at further fallout.
“We will seek all and any remedies from the AUPE to address the losses suffered as a result of this illegal job action,” said the letter. “A timely return to work will be taken into consideration as we proceed.”
Premier Alison Redford suggested in a news release that the province could be looking for financial redress.
“The government will do everything within our means to ensure taxpayers are not on the hook for the millions of dollars this illegal job action cost,” she said.
“As we have stated repeatedly, we will investigate all new and specific occupational health and safety concerns raised by government employees at the Edmonton Remand Centre.”
The end of the strike comes after a Court of Queen’s Bench justice fined the union $100,000 Monday night, a penalty that increased to $350,000 at noon Tuesday.
The union had been told that fine would jump to $500,000 on Wednesday and climb by half a million dollars each day after that.
Smith said the fines were worth it.
“I think the attention drawn to the issue of health and safety for correctional peace officers … were so important,” he said at a news conference held Tuesday night.
“Obviously, it wasn’t important enough for the government to address beforehand, and those workers felt the need to go on the wildcat strike to press those issues forward.”
Smith also confirmed the union has been notified the government will file further court action, although details were not specified.
The strike began last Friday when two workers voiced their concerns about safety at the new remand facility, which took in its first batch of 800 inmates earlier this month.
Their colleagues set up a picket line and refused to report for work, saying the workers had been disciplined unfairly.
Their anger quickly spread, with staff at other remand centres defiantly joining the movement. By Monday, they were joined by provincial sheriffs, who provide security at courthouses, and other court staff.
“Because of the strength shown by members at all correctional facilities provincewide, and by the sheriffs, court clerks, probation officers, social workers and others who joined them in solidarity, worksites like the new Edmonton Remand Centre will be safer,” Smith said.
However, by Tuesday, many of those who had joined the strike at other correctional facilities had begun to return to work after the Alberta Labour Relations Board issued a cease-and-desist order.
The government said court services staff was back on the job in Edmonton and Calgary, and sheriffs had returned to work in Calgary.
Lukaszuk had previously said the province wouldn’t deal with the union’s safety concerns until the guards go back to work, but he and Smith were spotted talking together several times in the last couple of days.
The guards were supported by the NDP and the Liberals on the grounds that the workers were left with little choice but to strike to get Redford’s government to take their safety concerns seriously.
“I think these people do care about their jobs. They also care about making sure that the inmates are safe, too,” said NDP critic Rachel Notley.
“But they are just desperately frustrated because they have got an employer who is acting like basic fundamental worker rights simply don’t exist, and at a certain point you have to stand up for those basic fundamental rights.”
The province estimates the dispute is costing the government more than $1.2 million a day to pay for RCMP and other police to staff Alberta’s jails.
Mounties were forced to cut some corners but said the strike did not affect criminal investigations.
Insp. Don McKenna said the RCMP cancelled training courses and reassigned officers who normally do administrative duties to help staff jails. Other Mounties were working at jails on their days off and putting in overtime after their regular police shifts.