Alberta NDP leader Brian Mason speaks to Alberta Union of Provincial Employee members at the Red Deer Remand Centre Tuesday.

Union reaches deal to end jail guards strike

EDMONTON — A massive illegal strike of jail guards that was sparked by the suspension of two workers and spread to correctional facilities across Alberta came to an end Tuesday night.

EDMONTON — A massive illegal strike of jail guards that was sparked by the suspension of two workers and spread to correctional facilities across Alberta came to an end Tuesday night.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees announced in a news release it had struck a deal with the provincial government to get workers back on the job by Wednesday morning.

“Over the last five days, Albertans and Canadians have been made explicitly aware of the health and safety concerns of front-line correctional peace officers,” said union president Guy Smith.

“These officers do a demanding job, in a challenging environment and do so proudly. 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.”

Smith said the agreement specifies the government will hold an occupational health and safety review to investigate concerns that have been raised about the new $580-million Edmonton Remand Centre.

The deal also guarantees there will be no retribution for individual workers who have been involved with the strike.

The end of the strike comes after a Court of Queen’s Bench justice fined the union $100,000 Monday night, a penalty that increased to $350,000 at noon Tuesday.

The union had been told that fine would jump to $500,000 on Wednesday and climb by half a million dollars each day after that.

The strike began last Friday when two workers voiced their concerns about safety at the new remand facility, which took in its first batch of 800 inmates earlier this month.

Their colleagues set up a picket line and refused to report for work, saying the workers had been disciplined unfairly.

Their anger quickly spread, with staff at other remand centres defiantly joining the movement. By Monday, they were joined by provincial sheriffs, who provide security at courthouses, and other court staff.

“Because of the strength shown by members at all correctional facilities provincewide, and by the sheriffs, court clerks, probation officers, social workers and others who joined them in solidarity, worksites like the new Edmonton Remand Centre will be safer,” Smith said.

However, by Tuesday, many of those who had joined the strike at other correctional facilities had begun to return to work after the Alberta Labour Relations Board issued a cease-and-desist order.

The government said court services staff was back on the job in Edmonton and Calgary, and sheriffs had returned to work in Calgary.

Government officials could not immediately be reached for comment. Deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk had previously said the province wouldn’t deal with the union’s safety concerns until the guards go back to work, but he and Smith were spotted talking together several times in the last couple of days.

Premier Alison Redford has not commented on the walkout publicly. Her spokesperson Neala Barton said Redford cut short a holiday this past weekend to deal with the issue and has been meeting senior officials on it since.

“(The issue) is of provincial importance so she’s been very involved, paying close attention to how things are developing and providing direction and guidance,” said Barton.

The guards were supported by the NDP and the Liberals on the grounds that the workers were left with little choice but to strike to get Redford’s government to take their safety concerns seriously.

“I think these people do care about their jobs. They also care about making sure that the inmates are safe, too,” said NDP critic Rachel Notley.

“But they are just desperately frustrated because they have got an employer who is acting like basic fundamental worker rights simply don’t exist, and at a certain point you have to stand up for those basic fundamental rights.”

The province estimates the dispute is costing the government more than $1.2 million a day to pay for RCMP and other police to staff Alberta’s jails.

Mounties were forced to cut some corners but said the strike did not affect criminal investigations.

Insp. Don McKenna said the RCMP cancelled training courses and reassigned officers who normally do administrative duties to help staff jails. Other Mounties were working at jails on their days off and putting in overtime after their regular police shifts.

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