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The Globe and Mail

Agreement to review safety at new jail ends Alberta’s wildcat strike

AUPE President Guy Smith talks to the crowd during a wildcat strike outside the Royal Alexandra hospital in Edmonton on February 16, 2012.

JASON FRANSON/The Globe and Mail

A deal has been reached to end Alberta's wildcat strike.

Union members will report to work at 7 a.m. Wednesday morning after their executive team agreed to a deal Tuesday night with the province to end an illegal strike that began four days earlier.

The deal includes a review of safety at a new jail where the walkout began, one that will be completed "expeditiously," the union said in a statement Tuesday evening. The deal also includes a guarantee that no individual member of the union will face retribution.

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In reaching a deal, the union avoids another $500,000 fine that would have been applied if the strike were still in progress at noon Wednesday. The fine was imposed by a judge Monday evening as part of a ruling that slammed union leadership for not quickly encouraging workers to return to the job.

The walkout began Friday at the Edmonton Remand Centre when two guards, each of them union officials, were suspended for a long series of hotly worded complaints to management. The night shift stood by them and refused to work, triggering the wildcat strike.

The Alberta Labour Relations Board ruled it illegal on Saturday, but the strike continued. On Monday, it expanded to include other professions, like social workers, court clerks and sheriffs.

The judge's ruling Monday night – imposing a range of fines, restrictions on what the union could put on its website and reinforcing an order to "immediately" end the strike – was a turning point.

By Tuesday morning, social workers and clerks were back on the job. By Tuesday afternoon, so too were sheriffs – leaving only jail guards, and even some of them returned to work. About 42 of the current shift of 400 guards had reported for duty as of 3 p.m. Tuesday, the government said. Roughly six hours later, a deal was reached.

AUPE President Guy Smith praised those who walked out.

"These officers need to know when they are on duty that their health and safety is protected and that the concerns they raise will be addressed seriously," he said in a written statement.

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The government played down the concessions, with Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk saying on Twitter that the safety investigation at the jail is "nothing new" because the province was always compelled to investigate Occupational Health and Safety complaints. "I'm glad AUPE made the right decision," Mr. Lukaszuk wrote.

Premier Alison Redford vowed to try to  recoup some of the costs of the strike, which the government had estimated at $1.2-million a day, mostly in wages paid to city police and RCMP officers who filled in for striking workers.

"The government will do everything within our means to ensure taxpayers are not on the hook for the millions of dollars this illegal job action cost," Ms. Redford said in a statement released by her office Tuesday evening.

The wildcat strike was Alberta's biggest since 2000, when 10,000 AUPE health care workers walked out for 48 hours.

The union has so far, barring a successful appeal, racked up fines of $350,000 under the terms of the judge's ruling.

All the groups that walked out were AUPE members, and the strike happened at a time when the union is in contract talks with the province. The AUPE insisted the talks had nothing to do with the walkout; the government insisted the talks were a key factor.

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