Alberta corrections strike set to spread
Province says contingency plans are in effect for the coming week
More workers are expected to join an illegal strike by some of the province's correctional officers as negotiations appear to be at a stalemate between members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) and the government.
Corrections officers from the new Edmonton Remand Centre refused to report for duty Friday afternoon, citing concerns to personal safety in the facility.
In the days since that walkout, corrections staff from nine other facilities across the province have walked out in solidarity with the Edmonton workers, though the AUPE reported Sunday that staff at remand centres in Medicine Hat and Red Deer have since decided to return to work.
Also joining in solidarity with the corrections workers are Edmonton and Calgary sheriffs, who will report to the picket line instead of duty on Monday morning, AUPE Local 003 chair Clarke McChesney said on Sunday.
Later Sunday, Edmonton probation officers also voted nearly unanimously in favour of supporting the striking corrections workers.
Union and province at a stalemate
Thirteen striking guards at Edmonton’s remand centre — where Friday’s strike action first began — have been served with court papers ordering them to return to work.
So far the guards at that centre are refusing to obey the orders, which were delivered around 1:30 a.m. MT Sunday.
"This scare tactic is not going to work," said Erez Raz, a vice-president for AUPE who has been a corrections officer for 16 years.
"The fact of the matter is we need a healthy and safe environment to work in."
The guards union says the illegal strike will continue until their concerns are addressed.
But the province says it will not negotiate.
"We will not respond to an illegal walkout. That is not how the system works and that's not how the system should be working," said Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk on Sunday afternoon.
"Nothing will happen until workers return to work," he added.
Lukaszuk said the province will encourage workers to re-file their list of complaints and grievances, adding that they will then be dealt with in an expedited manner.
"Let me be perfectly clear: if AUPE officially files any concerns at any time, we will always inspect and investigate because it is our number 1 priority that our employees are safe."
Lukaszuk denied there were safety issues.
He said the new Edmonton Remand Centre was given a "100 per cent clean bill of health" following inspections that took place before and after inmates were transferred over, and that AUPE members signed off to this effect.
Lukaszuk said that he believes there are other issues at play in the strike action.
"[The AUPE] has provided me with a list of 10 demands, but I couldn’t help but notice that occupational health and safety was actually number seven on his list of demands," he said on Saturday. "The other ones were more relevant to management rights and matters that should be … arbitrated at a bargaining table — not through illegal means."
But AUPE president Guy Smith says that the striking guards aren’t going anywhere until the province sits down with them to discuss the union’s demands.
"It’s actually inspiring more workers to walk out," said Smith about Lukaszuk’s refusal to speak to union reps while the strike is still on.
"Doesn’t the government understand this? Now it’s getting bigger and bigger."
Province says workers 'intimidated' by union
Alberta Justice released a statement earlier on Sunday saying striking corrections workers in the province are beginning to return to work, and suggesting that workers feel 'intimidated' by their own union.
"It has been our hope that the job action would be resolved quickly, and this appears to be happening," the statement read.
"Some of you have returned to work, and others have said they would like to return to work but feel intimidated," the release continued.
"We are aware of … union pressure tactics, which include misinformation being distributed. We can report, however, that picketing activities have substantially declined throughout the province."
Lukaszuk said his office has received "dozens" of calls from corrections staff asking for advice as they navigate conflicting demands.
"A large number of workers have been calling in and asking what to do and how to return to work because they feel intimidated," he confirmed.
He also added that some workers at the Edmonton Remand Centre never walked off the job, and have remained inside that facility helping maintain order since the strike began Friday afternoon.
Lukaszuk said Sunday that approximately a dozen officers have opted to return to work across the province.
The coming week
RCMP officers from British Columbia and Saskatchewan have been called to Alberta to serve as relief for some of the officers who have been working at the province’s corrections facilities since the strike began.
With so much uncertainty about who will strike next and for how long, questions are being asked about how the strikes will affect court and justice proceedings over the next week.
"I was going to be going out there this weekend but I was told they're not letting anyone in so I haven't been able to talk to clients who I need to talk to," said D'arcy DePoe, head of the Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association in Edmonton.
"You could see cases being delayed because either inmates are not being brought to court or lawyers haven't been able to speak with them."
DePoe said the new jail in Edmonton that sparked the strikes doesn't make it easy to do his job. The pod structure meant to increase communication between guards and prisoners makes privacy for lawyers and their clients nearly impossible, he said.
"We cannot review disclosure or documents with our clients, we can't have clients sign anything," he said.
Without access to clients, an already backed-up court system may find itself facing serious problems.
"There's all sorts of ramifications I haven't even wrapped my mind around," said Shayne Saskiw, justice critic for the opposition. "They would be numerous and they would be serious."
Contingency plans in effect
Deputy Solicitor General Tim Grant says that contingency plans are in effect for the coming week should the strike action continue.
Corrections managers will be working with the RCMP, Edmonton and Calgary police to maintain order within correctional facilities, he said, adding that other plans are in place for prisoner transport to and from court.
"We believe that we will be able to ensure that the right prisoners — the right individuals — get delivered to the right courts across the province so that the justice system will continue to operate," Grant said on Sunday afternoon, adding that the province’s chief judges are supportive.
"It’s our number 1 focus to make sure that the inmates are safe and that their medical needs are being met."
Inside the facilities
On Saturday, Lukaszuk said inmates were "trashing" Edmonton’s new remand facility while the guards remained on their illegal strike.
But in an exclusive interview with CBC News, inmate Edward Thomas said there has been no violence at the centre.
"The Edmonton Remand Centre is not trashed — it's actually clean. And there's guys that are actually trying to work with the staff here so we can get off lockdown."
However, Thomas added that the strike is affecting medical care.
"The only problem is the guards preventing health-care staff from crossing over the picket line to get the medication [in]. The people who do need their medication — it's because of mental problems."
Robin Southcombe, an inmate at the Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre northeast of Edmonton, described the mood on the women's side at that facility as "tense."
She added that things are much worse on the men's side of the prison, where inmates had been kicking and punching the walls and windows of their cells.
"They had to pull out a lot of men on the units because … they're trying to start riots on each unit," she said Saturday. "But the women are doing OK. We have one RCMP and some other lady here who's in white but I don't know, we've never seen them before."
Southcombe says that RCMP officers have now had to go in unit by unit and shackle inmates in their cells.
"Right now I feel, really, it's like on eggshells right now. It's very on edge."
She says the male prisoners have been acting out in response to delays in the delivery of meals and medicine.
The last time Alberta prison guards walked off the job was for nine days, nearly a quarter century ago.