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Striking Alberta jail guards ignore back-to-work order Add to ...

The president of the union representing guards at Alberta’s jails says his members are refusing to follow a labour board ruling that orders them to return to work.

Guy Smith of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees says the guards at the Edmonton Remand Centre and another facility in Fort Saskatchewan are vowing to continue their strike until safety concerns are addressed.

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Alberta’s labour relations board has ruled the wildcat strike is illegal and that they must return to their jobs or face possible criminal charges.

Alberta Union of Provincial Employees spokesman Bill Dechant said the ruling applies to guards at the Edmonton Remand Centre and at a facility in Fort Saskatchewan, and that the union would ask its members if they wanted to comply with the order.

Deputy Premier Thomas Lukazsuk said in a statement late Saturday that the province will "continue operating the corrections centres using our contingency plans until union staff return to work.

"Our efforts continue to focus on the safety of the public and inmates. With the assistance of police and management, the critical operational needs of the centres are being met," he added.

Guards walked out of the recently opened Edmonton Remand Centre early Friday evening, citing health and safety concerns, and the sudden job action soon spread to other jails in the province. By early Saturday, both the provincial government and union had confirmed walkouts affecting at least seven jails.

It forced the province to call in managers and police to staff the facilities, with union leaders warning the replacement workers won’t be sufficient by morning, when it comes time to deliver food and medication to inmates.

The province has sought an injunction to force the guards back to work to end an “illegal job action,” Justice Minister and Solicitor-General Jonathan Denis said.

“Any threats to public safety are dealt with swiftly and seriously by this government. We will investigate this fully,” Mr. Denis said in a statement sent out early Saturday morning. The facilities continued to be “securely operated” with replacement staff, he said.

“Thanks to everyone who is stepping up, including our policing partners, to ensure the continued safe operation of the facilities,” Mr. Denis said.

The Edmonton Remand Centre opened only weeks ago and can hold up to 1,952 inmates. It’s billed by province as the “largest, most technologically advanced correctional facility of its kind in Canada.” But the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees had warned certain design flaws and procedural failings in the new building posed a risk to guards. It had called on the province to delay the transfer of prisoners into the new facility.

The range of concerns boiled over Friday when two guards, who had continued to raise the concerns, were suspended by the province. The afternoon shift then refused to report to work, AUPE president Guy Smith said.

“These health and safety issues have been building and building, and it turned into a powder-keg,” he said, adding the AUPE executive was caught off-guard. “It was a wildcat strike. I had no idea it was going on until I got the call it was happening,” he said.

The union has concerns about what Mr. Smith called a “litany” of issues related to equipment, staffing, procedure and design of the new facility. Earlier this month, Mr. Smith had called on members to fight back against the changes. “If the department forges ahead, we will advise our members of their right to refuse work in the case of imminent danger,” he said in an April 11 news release.

The affected facilities included the remand centres in Calgary and Edmonton, Edmonton’s Young Offenders Centre, and jails in Calgary, Fort Saskatchewan, Peace River and Lethbridge.

Mr. Smith dismissed Mr. Denis’s criticism, saying public safety isn’t threatened by the wildcat strike. A government spokesman confirmed the jails were in “normal night time lock down” Friday evening and into Saturday.

“More of a concern to us at the moment is the safety of the officers that work in these centres in the province,” Mr. Smith said, later adding the strike will continue throughout Saturday. “They’re going to stay out, as far as I know, and we’ll just take it from there. We do want to seek solutions with the government, and we hope to have discussions with them.”

Media reports had suggested a riot squad had been called out, with a government spokesman saying “whatever form of police resources were available” were being called in. Speaking early Saturday morning, union leader Clarke McChesney said the situation at the Remand Centre was quiet.

“I would suggest that [Saturday] morning, things will ramp up quite a bit,” said Mr. McChesney, chairman of AUPE Local 003, representing guards. “Once the offenders start looking for their medications and their food ... I think that will be where things kind of fall of the tracks.”

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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