The Alberta government will attempt to force a provincial union to cover an estimated $6.5-million in losses after an illegal five-day strike by prison guards spread to other labour groups, paralyzing parts of the province.
Premier Alison Redford and Solicitor General Jonathan Denis told reporters on Wednesday that the wildcat walkout by prison guards that began in Edmonton last Friday – and was later joined by sheriffs, court clerks and social workers – has cost the government about $1.3-million a day in extra staffing and lost court time. The employees, who even defied a court order that left their union facing heavy fines, went back to work Wednesday after reaching an accord with the province.
“The taxpayers should not be on the hook for the illegal actions of the union,” Mr. Denis said in Calgary. “We not only hope that the union will pay. We insist that the union will pay for the costs that they have put onto taxpayers.”
He said the province will pursue arbitration, which is allowed through its collective agreement with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, once the final bill is tallied. The government also said it is seeking a suspension of union dues for up to six months.
AUPE president Guy Smith said the union with deal with the legal fallout in the “appropriate forums.”
“These are matters of fact and law that will be argued and decided on their merits before the courts and the labour relations board,” he said in a statement. “Until we have had the opportunity to make our case before those forums, I will not be making any statements in regard to those issues.”
The job action was sparked over concerns about working conditions and safety at the new $580-million Edmonton Remand Centre, when two guards, each of them union officials, were suspended for a long series of hotly worded complaints to management about health and safety concerns. The night shift stood by them and refused to work, triggering the wildcat strike.
The Alberta Labour Relations Board ruled it illegal on Saturday, and on Monday night a Court of Queen’s Bench justice fined the union $100,000, a penalty that increased to $350,000 at noon Tuesday and would have escalated further if the strike had dragged on.
The dispute ended after union leaders reached a deal with the province Tuesday night that includes a review of safety at the new jail where the walkout began, and a pledge that no individual union member will face retribution.
But Ms. Redford insisted that the government had not made any concessions, and that the same processes that were in place before the strike began will be used now to address the union concerns.
“We’re fully committed to engaging in everything that’s been bargained for with respect to health and safety issues that were raised,” she said. “… It would be a mistake to presume that we in any way agreed to anything, first of all, different than what was available before this illegal action started, and we certainly made it very clear over days to union leadership that we would not negotiate until workers were back to work.”
NDP Leader Brian Mason said the government isn’t accepting any blame for “exacerbating the dispute” and only “poured gasoline on the fire.” He said he’s now concerned about union breaking.
“It sounds like they’re going to punish the union very heavily for what’s gone wrong and take no responsibility themselves,” he said.
Michael Ford, a Calgary lawyer specializing in labour disputes, said his firm found only a few examples where an employer sought damages for an unlawful strike – and no case where government had done so. “[I] cannot imagine a government vigorously pursuing the union after everything settles down,” Mr. Ford, a partner at Davis LLP, wrote in an e-mail.
With a report from Josh Wingrove in Edmonton