The union at the centre of Alberta’s illegal wildcat strike has been found in contempt of court and will face escalating fines if workers aren’t back on the job quickly, a judge has ruled.
Associate Chief Justice J.D. Rooke made the ruling late Monday evening at an Edmonton court. The urgent hearing was called to consider whether the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) had followed a weekend order to end its members’ strike, which began Friday with jail guards and expanded on Monday to include court sheriffs, clerks and social workers.
The judge was not considering any of issues that led to the strike in the first place, including safety concerns at a new Alberta jail and the dismissal of a union leader who spoke out. The judge was only considering whether the union, as ordered, made all reasonable effort to get its workers back on the job after the Alberta Labour Relations Board ruling.
After several hours of argument and a 45-minute adjournment, Judge Rooke returned to deliver a stern ruling overwhelmingly against the union. He found AUPE President Guy Smith in “utter defiance” of the directive to end the strike, saying the union leader “mocked” and “taunted” the courts’ authority. The judge said the response “is not [only] wholly inadequate. It’s an insult.”
“The attitude [of Mr. Smith] is defiant and it’s clear that it’s defiant,” Judge Rooke said, saying he found Mr. Smith to be acting in a “non-leadership way.” Mr. Smith had a right to make the comments as a citizen, but violated the labour board ruling by doing so in his capacity as AUPE president, the judge ruled.
Judge Rooke, the highest-ranking Court of Queen’s Bench judge in Edmonton, found the union in contempt and took the “opportunity to purge the contempt” by levying a steep fine. The union was fined, immediately, $100,000. If the strike isn’t over by Tuesday at noon, it will be fined another $250,000. If the strike still isn’t over by Wednesday at noon, it will be fined an additional $500,000, with an additional $500,000 fine for each day thereafter that the strike continues. The largest fine awarded in similar previous cases was $250,000.
A lawyer representing the union asked if it could have a week to pay the initial $100,000 fine. Judge Rooke gave them 11 hours, saying: “Banks are open tomorrow, last I checked.”
Instead of urging members to return to work, Judge Rooke found that Mr. Smith and other union leaders spoke often of “solidarity” and led crowds in rousing speeches. “They don’t give them the leadership they deserve. They leave it in the hands of the mob,” Judge Rooke said after viewing video of the speeches.
He ordered that union leaders “will say in clear and unambiguous terms and without equivocation ... that the leadership of the union encourages the employees to meet the terms of [the weekend ruling] to cease their illegal strike and desist from engaging in any further strike activity and to return to work immediately.”
He also ordered the AUPE to publish the Labour Relations Board ruling on its website, remove all reference to “solidarity” with striking members and refrain from “publishing it’s own, quote, news, except to the extent I’ve identified.”
Faced with the steep fine, compressed timeline and sweeping restrictions on its website, the union said it was studying the order. “We need to evaluate it very carefully and consider our legal options,” Mr. Smith said in a written statement. Messages for the union leader weren’t immediately returned.
The ruling was delivered around 10:30 p.m. local time, after Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk and Mr. Smith were said to have met for a beer to begin negotiating. The province is urging the union to return to work so they can address the complaints; the union has said it won’t return to work until the complaints are addressed. The strike is costing the province about $1.2-million a day, largely due to policing costs with city and RCMP officers now handling jail security.
The strike began Friday evening when two union leaders at the Edmonton Remand Centre were disciplined for a series of hotly worded e-mails about safety at the jail, which opened two weeks ago. The evening shift then refused to work, preferring to side with the suspended workers. Later that evening, guards at six jails had walked out. By Monday, 10 jails were affected. The strike also spread Monday, with some court sheriffs, clerks and social workers walking out in support of the guards or correctional officers.
All the workers are AUPE members. The union is in contract talks with the province. Mr. Lukaszuk has said the strike has been spurred by the talks; Mr. Smith said the negotiations have nothing to do with the strike.
The AUPE lawyer, Simon Renouf, had argued the union has the right to publish stories about marching in solidarity on its website, comparing it to the powers of a newspaper or TV station. He also sought to argue that a union leader couldn’t convince union members to get back to work. “People in Alberta don’t do what organizations order them to do,” he argued.
The province’s lawyer, Hugh McPhail, argued that the judge needed to send a message with a stern ruling.
“We have a large number of people openly and publicly defying the law and defying this court. And that has to change, because the message hasn’t gotten through,” he said.
The union now has until noon local time Tuesday to end the strike and pay the initial $100,000 fine.