EDMONTON – The widespread wildcat strike that started last week with guards at Edmonton’s Remand Centre and spread to facilities throughout the province took a dramatic turn Monday night.
After hearing hours of arguments from both sides, a Court of Queen’s Bench justice found the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees in contempt of court for defying an earlier Alberta Labour Board ruling ordering its members back to work.
Justice J.D. Rooke fined the union $100,000, saying that rises to $250,000 if the strike isn’t over by noon Tuesday. By Wednesday at noon, it will be $500,000 — and the union must pay half a million dollars for each day after that.
Meanwhile, the labour board also issued granted a cease and desist order to the province that ordered all union public sector workers who walked out in support of the guards to return to their jobs.
The government went to the courts 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 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.
“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.”
The union didn’t want to comment on Monday night’s developments until they had been studied.
“We need to evaluate it (the directive) very carefully and consider our legal options,” said AUPE president Guy Smith.
Earlier in the evening, there had been reports on Twitter that Lukaszuk and Smith had been spotted together talking over a drink.
Defence lawyer Deborah Hatch said the already burdened court system can’t operate properly with the disruptions posed by the strike. 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.”
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.
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.