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Wildcat strike cripples Alberta courts, leaves jails with bare-bones staffing

Alberta sheriffs take part in a strike as they joined correctional guards, setting up a picket line outside the Edmonton courthouse on Monday April 29, 2013.


Todd Ross has spoken out before, but this time was different. The stakes were higher, the pushback more severe and the fallout widespread.

Mr. Ross is a correctional officer and union leader at Alberta's newest jail, the Edmonton Remand Centre. He fears it's unsafe, so he spoke out. He complained, wrote hotly worded e-mails and asked for meetings. Eventually, he called for the jail's director to be replaced. Management had enough. Last Friday, Mr. Ross and another union leader were suspended from their jobs and walked out the door as the night shift arrived. "If they would have went to work that day, it would have been [my] firing," Mr. Ross said. "That would have been the end."

Instead, his co-workers left with him, sparking an illegal wildcat strike that, by Monday, included all jail guards, some court sheriffs, social workers and other staff – the province's biggest wildcat strike in more than a decade. It crippled Alberta's courtrooms, left jails with bare-bones staffing levels and is costing the province $1.2-million a day.

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Mr. Ross's allies call him a hero, one taking a stand for safety. The government, though, is casting him as an outlier and telling workers to return to the job.

"It is simply unacceptable," Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk said. He didn't mince words, saying "I have no reason to believe this place is unsafe" and adding the strike was "caused simply by someone not liking their boss."

The jail is billed as the best of its kind in Canada, a $580-million facility holding as many as 1,952 inmates.

Prisoners were transferred from the old, now-shuttered remand centre over a weekend earlier this month. Mr. Ross says it was too rushed and that there are too few guards, too few cameras, breakable glass that could be used as a weapon and, at first, no files to say which prisoners needed medication.

But last month, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), which represents jail guards, signed off on an Occupational Health and Safety report, essentially approving the building. But things have changed, the union said. It later produced a 4 1/2 page list of shortcomings. Deputy Solicitor-General Tim Grant – the top bureaucrat in charge of jails – said none of those concerns were valid.

So the grand opening went ahead. In speaking to guards, Mr. Grant dismissed safety concerns and said those complaining have "their heads up their asses." Mr. Ross then later used the same phrase to criticize the head of the jail, part of the bad blood that sparked his suspension and the strike.

The Alberta Labour Relations Board ruled the wildcat strike illegal on Saturday. It left the union members divided – some continued to walk out, while others did not. The new jail had been held up as something of a silver bullet for a long list of simmering issues. That made it a "powder keg," the union said.

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The province sought a cease-and-desist order barring the entire AUPE from striking at a time when the two sides are also in contract talks. AUPE President Guy Smith said the talks aren't a factor in the strike; Mr. Lukaszuk suggested they were, saying, "let's not take this out of context."

There's no resolution in sight. Mr. Lukaszuk is urging strikers to return to work and use normal channels to file complaints. The union, though, says complaints haven't yet been addressed. "Health and safety is the reason that we're out here, and health and safety will be the reason we go back," Mr. Smith said.

Pickets spread across the province. Calgary defence lawyer Andre Ouellette, a former correctional officer, stood onside with the union and said the government must address the concerns. "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.

In the meantime, RCMP Inspector John Haney is confident his officers can keep the jails in order. One scuffle broke out at the Calgary Remand Centre, sending a prisoner to hospital, but Mr. Grant said the strike wasn't a factor. There have been no other serious incidents, Insp. Haney said. Union leaders and opposition leaders urged Premier Alison Redford to intervene. Approached by a reporter at an Edmonton restaurant Monday, she declined to comment on the strike.

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