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Alberta’s Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk. (Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Alberta’s Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk. (Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Alberta jail guard wildcat strike leaves main courthouses in gridlock Add to ...

An illegal wildcat strike by Alberta’s jail guards is expanding on its fourth day, sending many provincial workers off the job.

Sheriffs and other court staff joined jail workers on the picket line Monday, leaving two major courthouses scrambling for staff. The strike has divided Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) members – some court clerks reported to work, others walked the picket line. Some parole officers and other justice system staff also walked out, as did some provincial social workers, mostly in the northern half of the province.

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In Edmonton, more than 100 strikers lined the road outside the Edmonton Remand Centre, where the strike began Friday afternoon. It remains ground zero, despite a Labour Board ruling Saturday ordering staff back to work. Another picket line was set up Monday outside Edmonton’s courthouse while a disorganized scene unfolded inside. Only five of the nearly 50 courtrooms were open, when hundreds of cases were scheduled to be heard. Many will now be delayed, though it wasn’t clear how many. Meanwhile, Edmonton city police were struggling to replace more than 100 sheriffs who typically staff the courthouse. One court worker said there were 30 city officers there, and police were searching bags by hand because the X-ray conveyor belts that typically scan bags and jackets were turned off. Sheriffs outside questioned whether police knew how to run them; an officer inside said they weren’t working.

By Monday afternoon, the walkout was spreading to Calgary’s courts with some clerks there walking off the job, greeted by cheers in the picket line while other clerks remained at their desks. Operations appeared to continue as normal although, with fewer staff working on site, filing and retrieving court documents seemed somewhat slowed. Cases continued to be heard in courtrooms.

The situation was evolving quickly on Monday, with union executives having trouble tracking which groups had walked off the job.

“It’s only growing bigger,” Erez Raz, a jail guard and union leader, said outside the Edmonton courthouse Monday, where several dozen workers were picketing amid sleet, high winds and temperatures around the freezing mark.

Mr. Raz dismissed comments from Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk that a weekend ruling declaring the strike illegal would send staff back to work. Mr. Lukaszuk has suggested the strike is related to ongoing AUPE contract talks as much as it is to safety. Mr. Raz said it’s instead about workplace safety concerns raised over several years, which boiled over Friday.

“This has nothing to do with negotiations,” he said. “This has to do with decades of getting disciplined, scapegoated, and everything else when we bring up issues. It’s ‘don’t worry about it, make it work, make it work.’ People are now tired of making it work. They want action.”

The strike began late Friday afternoon, when two guards – union leaders – at the Remand Centre were suspended for earlier e-mails complaining about the working conditions. In turn, the afternoon shift refused to report to work. The ball was soon rolling, with the wildcat strike spreading to six jails province-wide by midnight that evening, and 10 jails by Monday.

Provincial Justice Minister Jonathan Denis swiftly appealed to the Alberta Labour Relations Board to rule the strike illegal. It did on Saturday, prompting the province to go public Sunday and say some workers were returning to the job, but the picket lines remained in place Monday. Mr. Lukaszuk was scheduled to speak to reporters later Monday afternoon. Both Mr. Denis (reached by phone) and Premier Alison Redford (approached while leaving a restaurant over the lunch hour) declined to comment Monday on the spreading strike.

Managers and police have been working at the jails in the meantime, but with low staffing levels that the union warns will affect patient care, including delivery of food and medication.

The province’s next step is unclear. By Sunday evening, Mr. Lukaszuk was refuting rumours that the province would consider jailing the striking guards, saying the province hasn’t suggested that as an option. He’s instead urging the union to accept the province’s offer of mediation. Because the strike is illegal, though, those who are walking out aren’t getting paid and face a range of penalties.

“Everyone out here is well aware of that, and has made their decisions based on the knowledge there could be repercussions,” AUPE President Guy Smith said outside the Remand Centre Monday morning. RCMP were staffing the facility in the guards’ absence, but Mr. Smith said they’re not trained to do it long term.

“It’s a totally different world for them,” he said, later adding that safety concerns are the top issue for guards. “Health and safety is the reason that we’re out here, and health and safety will be the reason we go back,” he said.

In Calgary, union officials told member sheriffs not to speak with the press about concerns about safety, short-staffing and overtime demands. “We’ve been trying to approach the government on our concerns and they just keep dismissing us,” said Carrie-Lynn Rusznak, a vice-president with AUPE as she stood outside the Calgary facility.

Ms. Rusznak said sheriffs face personal threats to their safety as they sit side-by-side with accused criminals during court proceedings and as attempts are made to bring weapons into the building.

“It’s a dangerous environment from the minute they show up for their shift until they leave,” she said.

The AUPE is currently in talks with the province over a new contract, meaning guards are striking in the middle of negotiations over their pay, benefits and working conditions. Mr. Lukaszuk said most of the 10 demands submitted by the AUPE after the strike broke out were related to management rights, with the Deputy Premier saying the province won’t make “side deals” in the middle of negotiations on an overall deal. Mr. Smith refuted that, saying the list was meant to be private and that the walkout has nothing to do with labour negotiations.

The union has previously signed off on the design of the Edmonton Remand Centre, Mr. Lukaszuk said over the weekend. Opened weeks ago, the $580-million jail is billed by the province as the “most technologically advanced correctional facility of its kind in Canada.” It holds a maximum of 1,952 inmates.

There are some safety concerns there, though union staff have declined to name all of them – they fear that doing so will give ideas to inmates about how to beat security. But the issues include questions about workloads, including “triple-bunking” or putting three prisoners in one cell; Occupational Health and Safety regulations, including what the union says is a need for more firefighting equipment; and procedure, including limiting inmate assaults (guards on the picket line spoke of having urine thrown at their faces).

The issues aren’t unique to the new Remand Centre, but the jail had been held up as something of a silver bullet, the union says. Once the new jail opened, and the issues persisted, it triggered the walkout. “It’s what we were always told – make it work, we’re building a new jail, it’s fine. Well, it’s not fine,” Mr. Raz, the guard, said. The new centre also has more open space.

“It’s not just a new building. It’s a new doctrine of interaction between correctional officers and prisoners,” said Mr. Mason, the NDP leader who joined the picket line Monday.

Calgary defence lawyer Andre Ouellette, a former correctional officer, stood onside with the union and said that it is about time concerns are addressed.

“Essentially [this is] about the way the government deals with its human assets, deals with its people, its employees and what I consider to be a high-handed attitude to people,” he said. “This government has been very, very, very keen to build buildings and spend money on stuff, but when it comes to dealing with its primary asset – human beings and employees – it has failed in my view.”

Mr. Ouellette, who hails from Quebec, acknowledged that historically Alberta hasn’t had a positive view of organized labour action. But he said that should change.

“This kind of action is symptomatic and it’s about time that people collectively take actions that actually make the government perhaps understand that they need to discuss things with the people, with employees before taking actions, before making decisions,” he said. He said he would not cross a picket line if job action escalated beyond Monday’s information picket.

Social workers joined the picket line in support over the weekend, but some decided to walk out themselves for what they saw as a dismissive response from the province. Social workers often have to go to court or into jails, and they say their safety is also at risk. “The way the ministers were responding to [the jail guards’ strike], we became really concerned. Because it’s occupational safety, and everyone should have the right to refuse unsafe work,” Shamanthi Cooray, a social worker and union leader, said outside the Remand Centre Monday.

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