Following four hours of "extensive," closed-door negotiations, the Alberta Labour Relations Board has decided to look into the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees' (AUPE) allegations against the province.
The board felt the presence of an appointed mediator would be helpful to both parties, given the state of the relationship, said AUPE lawyer Simon Renouf Thursday night, adding that the board will likely select one of their own members to fill the role.
Renouf said it is his understanding that the investigation will begin immediately, and that the appointed board representative will be meeting with both the AUPE and province to effect a resolution to the disputed allegations.
The decision to appoint a mediator had nothing to do with whether the AUPE’s complaint against the province had any merit, added lawyer Patrick Nugent, also representing AUPE.
"It’s more about the relationship between the parties," he said, "and what might be, in a labour-relations sense, of most assistance to both parties in these circumstances."
The appointed mediator will help maintain a functional relationship between the two parties, who spent much of the last week involved in a war of words, said Renouf.
"Labour relations is different than litigation over a car accident or commercial dispute because the parties have to keep working with each other," he said.
"The AUPE is not going anywhere, the government of Alberta is not going anywhere, and they’re still going to be dealing across the table with each other in 20 years time — so they have to forge a relationship here."
Both lawyers said the AUPE sees the step as a positive development, but that this may not be the end of the dispute.
"Although it’s the hope that this doesn’t come to pass, it is, of course, possible that the complaint actually comes back to the board to be heard fully with evidence about the allegations that the union has raised," said Nugent
Earlier on Thursday
The hearing was set after the AUPE filed a complaint against the province over what it says were glaring discrepancies between the terms of the agreement ending the five-day illegal strike and the message being relayed to corrections workers behind closed doors.
"We’ll put a good case in front of the Alberta Labour Relations Board and we’ll see what comes of it," said AUPE president Guy Smith earlier Thursday night, adding that the union had called a number of witness — including several remand centre guards — to present testimony at the hearing.
Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk said Thursday morning that he welcomed the opportunity for a second labour board hearing as it would put an end to the dispute once and for all.
"If I'm called to testify, I gladly will," he said. "But I'm not sure they will call me.
Complaint filed following Wednesday’s 'mixed messages'
On Wednesday, Smith said he was furious with how his workers were treated since returning to work.
Guards who participated in a five-day illegal strike at the Edmonton Remand Centre have been told they could face discipline despite what the union believed were assurances from the province that no striker would be reprimanded.
In a press release Thursday, Tim Grant, Alberta's deputy solicitor general, said it's not the province's intention to seek retribution against workers, but there may be exceptions.
"There was one report where the manner in which some employees left their posts may have put inmates, their fellow guards and management in danger," he said. "This incident will be investigated and dealt with appropriately."
Yesterday, the AUPE accused Grant of taunting and goading staff at the remand centre.
Corrections officer Todd Ross said that Grant told guards assembled for muster Wednesday morning that some would be disciplined and others may be fired.
The union believes it received an ironclad promise that nobody would be reprimanded for striking, along with a promise for a review into safety concerns in its negotiated settlement with the province.
Smith called the government’s mixed messages "absolutely reckless."
But Grant said the government's position outlined in the letter from the Alberta Public Service Commissioner to the AUPE did not promise immunity to all.
Grant said the letter stated, "With respect to your request for amnesty for striking employees, it is not our intention to seek retribution and following a return to work we will consider all circumstances on a case by case basis and act thoughtfully and in a measured and appropriate fashion."
Grant acknowledges he spoke to guards Wednesday and said he will meet them again today.
"My actions since employees have returned have, and will continue to be, consistent with the contents of this letter," he said.