EDMONTON — More provincial workers are joining Alberta’s prison guards in a wildcat strike, according to their union, while the government counters the union is spreading rumours and many guards are actually returning to work.
Tyler Bedford, a spokesman for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, announced Sunday that provincial sheriffs in Edmonton and Calgary will join the strike by hundreds of jail guards.
The sheriffs are members of the same AUPE local as the guards.
“Provincial sheriffs in Edmonton and Calgary voted overwhelmingly to support the striking guards,” said Bedford, who noted the sheriffs patrol highways and also provide security in courthouses and prisoner escorts.
Justice and solicitor general spokesman Josh Stewart, however, said the number of pickets on Sunday dropped from the day before and that many guards across the province have heeded a labour board order issued Saturday that their strike was illegal.
The government released a statement to corrections staff Sunday afternoon which said the province wanted to help them return to work.
“Some of you have returned to work, and others have said they would like to return to work but feel intimidated. We are aware of these union pressure tactics, which include misinformation being distributed,” the statement said.
The labour dispute involving hundreds of prison guards in Alberta is now into its third day.
The dispute was triggered by the suspension of an employee at the Edmonton Remand Centre who complained about safety issues.
Guards at several other detention centres walked off the job in protest and Guy Smith of the AUPE has encouraged workers to “stand strong.”
Inmates have been restricted to their jail cells and striking staff have been either replaced by municipal police or RCMP officers who are backing up correctional supervisors.
Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk has vowed that all legal means will be used to end the job action.
The labour board ruling on Saturday applied only to guards at the Edmonton Remand Centre and another facility northeast of the city in Fort Saskatchewan, but Stewart said it was later expanded to include a total of 10 facilities where guards had walked off the job.
Stewart said no workers have been charged yet, although he said those who were on picket lines early Sunday morning were served with court papers.
He was unable to specify what the court papers said.
Stewart said preparations were being made to bring RCMP officers from other provinces in case they are needed to assist their Alberta colleagues in the jails, but he said none had been brought in so far.
“The union put out a rumour that the RCMP was considering joining the strike. That’s completely, completely false,” Stewart said, adding there has been unruly behaviour on the picket lines.
“Picketers are bullying the (Alberta Health Services) nurses that are going by to give patients treatment.”
Bedford said he didn’t know who started the rumours, so he couldn’t speak to them.
He conceded that some guards may have returned to work at some facilities but he couldn’t say which ones.
“The thing about these wildcats is they’re organized at the worksite and not out of the union office,” Bedford said.
The guards’ union has said the suspension of the union member on Friday was the last straw for correctional officers who have complained about the design of the new Edmonton Remand Centre.
Just days before the jail opened, the AUPE said it found five pages of design flaws after touring the facility. At that time, the union asked the provincial government to delay the transfer of prisoners from the old remand centre until the changes were made.
Lukaszuk said the facility was deemed safe by occupational health and safety workers, which he noted were also members of the AUPE.
He said that if the guards have safety concerns, there are legal remedies that exist in their collective agreement.