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

EDMONTON – A labour dispute involving Alberta jail guards and security staff is spreading, with provincial sheriffs picketing outside courthouses in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees says some court clerks and social workers have also walked out in solidarity with jail guards, who are off the job at 10 correctional facilities.

“Workers are showing support and solidarity with correctional police officers across the province,” union president Guy Smith said on the picket line Monday outside the massive new $580-million Edmonton Remand Centre.

“The corrections officers at the Edmonton Remand Centre are facing a litany of health and safety concerns which they continue to raise, and which have been ignored by the government, and which actually forced the wildcat strike.”

The illegal walkout began Friday after two guards at the jail were suspended when they complained about safety at the facility, which started taking inmates for the first time earlier this month.

Alberta Justice spokeswoman Christine Nardella said police and managers are maintaining security at the correctional facilities. She said there have been no disturbances involving inmates.

Nardella said police and managers are also dealing with security at the courthouses and the plan is to keep the court system working as well as it can.

“We are getting a lot of good help from the RCMP and local police agencies to help us transport inmates to and from court and the remand centres. As far as we are able, we will maintain court operations,” she said.

At the Edmonton courthouse, however, the dispute forced cancellation of family law hearings and delayed some trials.

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.

On Saturday, the labour board ruled that the strike by workers at Edmonton Remand Centre was illegal and ordered them back to work. That order was later expanded to include nine other correctional facilities in the province.

Over the weekend the government served some of the guards with court orders to return to their jobs.

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 union has declined to release detailed information about its concerns, citing safety reasons.

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

Deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk has 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.

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

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.