Alberta courts plan to run even though sheriffs have joined striking guards

EDMONTON – The Alberta government is trying to slam a legal lid on an illegal strike by jail guards that has already boiled over into the province’s court system.

The government went to court late Monday afternoon to ask a judge to find the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees in contempt of court for defying a Saturday labour board ruling that ordered Edmonton Remand Centre guards back to work.

“The Labour Relations Board issued a directive requiring AUPE to make every reasonable effort to end this strike and to communicate to employees that they had to return to work,” Dwayne Chomyn, a government legal advisor, said Monday.

“The allegation is that they did not do that and therefore (government officials) are asking that AUPE be held in civil contempt for that.”

The government made the move after some provincial sheriffs, court clerks and social workers picketed outside courthouses in Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and other communities in solidarity with jail guards, who were off the job at 10 correctional facilities.

The job action by sheriffs and staff forced the postponement of some family court cases and delayed some trials and other court proceedings.

The province also announced Monday it was also seeking a cease and desist from the labour board that would order all union public sector workers who walked out in support of the guards to return to their jobs.

The illegal walkout began Friday after two guards at the massive new $580-million Edmonton Remand Centre were suspended when they complained about safety at the facility, which started taking inmates for the first time earlier this month.

Deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk said the government won’t deal with the union’s safety concerns at the jail until the guards go back to work.

Lukaszuk blamed the dispute on a personal conflict between a union official at the jail and some of his supervisors.

“This illegal strike by AUPE, frankly, I have tell you, is irresponsible and it is causing Albertans a great deal of grief,” he said.

“A great deal of this unrest is caused simply by someone not liking their boss. This is simply unacceptable.”

The government estimates the strike is costing the government more than $1.5 million per day to pay for RCMP and other police to staff Alberta’s jails.

Todd Ross, the chairman of the union local representing guards at the remand centre, said it is the safety conditions at the jail that are unacceptable.

Ross said 800 inmates were moved into the new jail over a two-day period from other remand centres, which was too many too fast.

He said glass in the facility is breakable, there aren’t enough video monitoring cameras and not enough officers are issued with pepper spray.

Ross said he doesn’t believe a contempt ruling or cease and desist order will end the strike.

“This is all about occupational health and safety concerns,” said Ross, who has been a corrections officer for 28 years.

“It is a life and death situation. We need to get some meaningful talks going with this government.”

Lukaszuk said police and managers would continue to handle security at the jails and courthouses.

Defence lawyer Deborah Hatch said the already burdened court system can’t operate properly with such disruptions. She said the clerk who was to staff a trial she was to be involved in Monday was out on the picket line.

“It is absolutely not business as usual. There are jury trials that are supposed to start this morning. There are other types of trials in provincial court and Court of Queen’s Bench. We don’t have the people to function,” said Hatch, former president of the Edmonton Criminal Trial Lawyers Association.

“Even one day of this will bring this system really to its knees.”

The union and the government said there were no immediate plans for any face-to-face talks to resolve the dispute.

Just days before the Edmonton Remand Centre opened, the union said it found five pages of design flaws after touring the facility. Union leaders asked the province to delay the transfer of prisoners from the old remand centre until changes were made.

The Alberta government said the facility was deemed safe by occupational health inspectors.

Lukaszuk 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 said the union is in the middle of collective bargaining and he suggested it might be using the strike as a pressure tactic.

AUPE president Guy Smith said that isn’t true.

“This has nothing to do with contract negotiations,” Smith said. “This has everything to do with health and safety for the correctional police officers on the front lines.”

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, called on Premier Alison Redford to get involved to help resolve the dispute.

McGowan said the union’s safety concerns should have been dealt with properly by the government weeks or months ago.

He accused Lukaszuk of using bullying tactics instead of properly managing the situation.

“We need cooler heads to prevail, and that is not going to happen as long as a hot-head like Thomas Lukaszuk is involved in the process,” McGowan said.

Government officials said Premier Alison Redford has been fully briefed on the illegal strike and the walkouts by other public sector union members, but will not be directly involved in the dispute.