Alberta jail guard union fined, found in contempt of court

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees has been fined $100,000 after it was found in civil contempt of court for ignoring a back-to-work order issued Saturday to striking correctional officers.

Union fined $100K, other striking workers ordered back to work

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees has been fined $100K after it was found in contempt of court 1:40

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees has been fined $100,000 after it was found in civil contempt of court for ignoring a back-to-work order issued Saturday to striking correctional officers.

In his ruling issued Monday around 10:30 p.m. MT, Associate Chief Justice John Rooke said that the fine would rise to $250,000 if the strike does not end by noon on Tuesday; the fine goes up to $500,000 if workers are still off the job on Wednesday, and each day after that.

The $100,000 fine is to be paid immediately. "Banks are open tomorrow, last I checked," the judge remarked.

AUPE did not do enough to instruct workers to end the strike, the judge ruled. He said that union leaders were "sarcastic" and "mocking' in their comments about the court order.

Rooke also ordered the union to remove all online material posted in support of the strike.

The strike started on Friday afternoon when officers represented by AUPE walked off the job at the Edmonton Remand Centre.

The Alberta Labour Relations Board ruled that the strike was illegal and ordered the officers back to work. But the guards remained off the job and were joined on Monday by sheriffs, court staff, probation workers and social workers.

After a hearing that also took place Monday evening, the Alberta Labour Relations Board issued a cease-and-desist order to the other striking workers and ordered them back to work.

AUPE sent a news release late Monday stating that it would "carefully review" the court ruling.

"We need to evaluate it very carefully and consider our legal options," said AUPE president Guy Smith. The news release said the union would not comment any further.

The widening strike slowed court proceedings in much of the province, which will be forced to adjourn cases if the work stoppage at several correctional facilities continues much longer.

"It seems very chaotic inside the courthouse," said Deborah Hatch, past president of the Criminal Trials Lawyers' Association outside the Edmonton court building. "It's absolutely not business as usual. We don't have the people we need to function.

Sheriffs set up a picket line at the Calgary Courts Centre Monday morning. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

"Even one day of this will bring this system to its knees."

Social workers in the province are also walking off the job in support of correctional officers, who say they share similar issues as the guards.

"We want to show our solidarity with [Edmonton Remand Centre] and their occupational health and safety issues," said Alberta Union of Provincial Employees  local spokeswoman Shamanthi Cooray.

Social workers will join picketers at jails across the province, she said.

The strike is costing the province $1.2 million a day to have RCMP, Edmonton and Calgary police officers take over security in the affected facilities.

Officer swarmed by inmates

The illegal strike began Friday afternoon when guards from Edmonton's new $580 million remand centre — which is the largest in Canada — refused to report for duty citing concerns for personal safety in the facility.

The guards are also angry that two of their colleagues were suspended for speaking out.

Todd Ross is one of the two guards who were suspended after they spoke out about safety concerns in the remand centre. The walkout occurred partly in response to the suspension. (CBC)

Todd Ross, one of the suspended guards, says he was placed on a leave of absence with pay on Friday after he wrote to the director of the remand centre and a deputy minister about workplace safety.

"It came to a head when [the remand centre executive director] decided to walk me out in front of 70 oncoming correctional officers," Ross said.

"And he walked me past those and they went into their muster and decided not to go into work and come out and join me on the street."

Ross said a junior officer had a terrifying experience at the new facility, which just began receiving inmates two weeks ago.

"The officer that's on there with only seven months' experience was basically swarmed by 72 guys wanting their canteen and was told to get off the unit," Ross said. The officer made it out safely.

"I have 28 years experience," Ross said. "I am at a loss to tell you, with all my experience, how I would have handled that particular situation. That is unacceptable for this government to put anyone in that predicament."

Ross, who is the head of the remand centre union local, believes he will be fired following an investigation for sending the emails, unless he and the other workers are granted amnesty. 

Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk claimed that the current unrest was caused by someone "not liking their boss."

He again repeated that occupational health and safety officers have deemed the facility safe and that the union signed off on a hazard assessment last month.

"I would be the last person to send someone to work knowing that the workplace is unsafe," Lukaszuk said.

No workers have yet been fined, he said, but he hoped that workers would obey the law and return to work.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford has yet to make a public statement on the situation. Lukaszuk said that it would be inappropriate for her to get involved.

"Premier should not, and would not, get involved in negotiating issues with unions directly," he said.

Stalemate between union and government

Inmates were moved from the old remand centre in downtown Edmonton earlier this month, shortly after the government brushed off concerns raised by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees about unresolved safety problems at the new centre.

The jail is built around the concept of direct supervision, where there are no barriers separating guards from the majority of the prisoners, which is supposed to allow for better rapport.

The strike reached a stalemate over the weekend after a war of words between Lukaszuk and AUPE.

While the high-tech centre relies heavily on closed-circuit TV allowing inmates to make court appearances remotely, one inmate told CBC News the people backfilling the striking guards do not know how to use the equipment.

The province is hoping to use police and RCMP to replace the sheriffs and transport inmates to and from the 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," said deputy solicitor general Tim Grant.

Can only do so much

About 40 Edmonton police officers were filling in for sheriffs Monday morning at the Edmonton courthouse while about 45 officers helped staff the Calgary courthouse.

Calgary police Duty Insp. Rick Tuza said that while police are prepared to help out, they can only do so much.

"For us to effectively take over all of the security roles that the sheriffs are responsible for, I think would be a huge undertaking," he said. "We have a responsibility to police the city."

RCMP officers and managers are replacing the jail guards at eight correctional facilities across Alberta.

Edmonton remand inmate Colin Struth said inmates are working with the RCMP replacement workers, trying to get through what he calls tough times.

"Lots of guys aren't getting their medication, life-threatening medication," he said. "The nurses won't cross the picket lines. 

"They're on a skeleton crew there. They haven't given us clean underwear in four days."

One inmate was taken to hospital after a fight broke out at the Calgary Remand Centre around 10 p.m. Sunday.

The victim was taken to hospital in life-threatening condition, but has improved. 

The walkout has led members of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta — which includes pharmacists, pharmacy assistants, addictions counsellors and paramedics — to report to alternative workplaces over what they consider unsafe work conditions.