Alberta sheriffs, court workers join striking prison guards
Published Monday, April 29, 2013 5:48AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, April 29, 2013 10:18PM EDT
A wildcat strike that saw hundreds of Alberta prison guards walk off the job continues to gain momentum, with courtroom sheriffs, clerks and social workers joining the picket line.
Provincial sheriffs picketed outside courthouses in Edmonton and Calgary on Monday, as prison guards from 10 correctional facilities throughout Alberta entered Day 4 of the strike, despite being issued a back-to-work order by the province.
The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said some court clerks and social workers have also walked out in solidarity with guards.
Municipal and RCMP officers and management at the correction facilities have been filling in for the hundreds of striking workers.
Alberta Deputy Solicitor General Tim Grant told The Canadian Press it will be business as usual in the province’s courts on Monday, with RCMP and city police taking on the work of sheriffs who have joined the strike.
The cost of deploying police officers to jails is estimated to be $1.2 million per day.
“It is costing this government a lot, even by government standards,” deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk told reporters.
He maintained that the province won't negotiate with the union representing the guards until they return to work.
On Saturday, the Alberta Labour Relations Board issued a cease-and-desist order, directing corrections staff back to work. However, a number of guards opted to ignore the order.
Alberta Union of Provincial Employees vice-president Glen Scott says striking workers are waiting for the province to start a dialogue, as the guards are not prepared to return to what they consider an unsafe workplace.
“It’s at the point now when someone has to take a break and leave the unit, some of those units are actually being left unmanned. That’s unacceptable,” Scott told CTV’s Canada AM on Monday. “There’s been an increase in assaults between inmates and on staff.”
Scott said staffing cuts have been a long-time concern at Alberta’s correctional facilities.
He said the “final straw” came last week when an employee was suspended for complaining about safety issues at the newly-built Edmonton Remand Centre.
That employee, Todd Ross, told CTV Edmonton that the mega-jail’s open-concept design, with open pods holding most prisoners and no barriers separating the guards from the inmates, is unsafe.
Ross said that after he complained, "they decided to suspend me and walk me out right in front of the on-coming shift.”
But the government disputes that version of events, saying it was a spat between a worker and management that led to the walkouts.
“Today, earlier, I heard that a great deal of this unrest has been caused simply by someone not liking their boss. And I have to tell you, this is simply unacceptable,” Lukaszuk said.
Just days before the jail opened, the AUPE said it documented five pages worth of design flaws after touring the $580-million facility.
Inmates began moving into the new jail on April 12.
“At the end of every day, people want to go home to their families,” Scott said. “The staff there was feeling that was in serious jeopardy.”
Scott said the workers have been waiting for “months” for the province to address the issues.
“Instead, they’re legislating us back to work and calling our strike illegal.
“In a country like Canada, I thought if your boss told you to go into an unsafe environment and you refuse, I thought you had that right,” Scott said. “Apparently if you do that in Alberta, you can face possible jail (time).”
While the walkout has been deemed illegal, none of the striking workers have been charged.
On Sunday, Alberta’s justice minister said some of the correctional staff have returned to work, while other have been “intimated” to do so.
“We are aware of these union pressure tactics, which include misinformation being distributed. We can report, however, that picketing activities have substantially declined throughout the province,” Jonathan Denis said in a statement.
Denis said the health and safety concerns raised at the Edmonton Remand Centre were investigated “and no remedial action was identified.”
With a report from CTV Edmonton’s Jeff Harrington