Alberta jail guards return to work after strike ends

The union representing striking Alberta prison guards has reached a deal with the provincial government to end the five-day illegal strike.

Province agrees to review of safety issues at remand centre

The union representing striking Alberta prison guards ends its five-day illegal strike 2:19

The union representing striking Alberta prison guards has reached a deal with the provincial government to end the five-day illegal strike.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) announced in a news release Tuesday night that the province has agreed to another occupational health and safety review of issues raised by the guards at the Edmonton Remand Centre.

Individual members of the union will not face retribution for walking off the job, the AUPE news release said. Workers will start returning to their jobs at 7 a.m. Wednesday.

"To try and get the government to actually sit down and talk seriously about these issues was a challenge, but I think at the end of the day they realized that they had to in order to resolve this," AUPE president Guy Smith said.

The government earlier estimated the cost of having police take over security at correctional centres at $1.2 million a day. In a statement released late Tuesday, Premier Alison Redford said the province intends to seek costs from AUPE.

"The government will do everything within our means to ensure taxpayers are not on the hook for the millions of dollars this illegal job action cost," she said in the release.

The letter public service commissioner Dwight Dibben sent to AUPE president Guy Smith on Tuesday also had a stern tone.

"To be clear, we will seek any and all remedies from AUPE to address the losses suffered as a result of this illegal job action," Dibben wrote. "A timely return to work will be taken into consideration as we proceed."

Dibben said the government did not intend to penalize individual members but added that "all circumstances" would be considered on a "case by case basis."

The announcement comes after prison guards and sheriffs remained on strike Tuesday despite a court ruling that fined AUPE hundreds of thousand dollars each day workers defied a ruling ordering them back to work.

The first $100,000 fine was paid earlier on Tuesday. On Wednesday, AUPE will pay the $250,000 fine for not meeting the Tuesday noon deadline.

The union leader said the $350,000 cost was worth it, because the government was forced to pay attention to the issues raised by the walkout.

"I think they had to, I think they had no choice," Smith said. "They were getting a black eye with these strikes, it garnered national attention, focused a lot of attention on Alberta, and I know that the government needed to get it resolved."

The legal issues may not end with the strike. Smith said that the government intends to return to court on Wednesday to seek another ruling finding AUPE in contempt of court.

Contradictory statements

Striking prison guards, who walked off the job on Friday, were joined Monday by provincial sheriffs, probation officers, court workers and social workers, effectively shutting down court proceedings in Edmonton and Calgary.

AUPE was fined $100,000 Monday night after a judge found it in contempt of court for ignoring a back-to-work order issued Saturday to striking correctional officers.

The judge said the union would be fined another $250,000 if the strike did not end by noon Tuesday and that each additional day the workers were out would cost the union $500,000.

All other striking workers were ordered back to work by the Alberta Labour Relations Board on Monday night.

On Tuesday, there was some confusion over who was on strike and who had returned to work.

Deputy Solicitor General Tim Grant said at a press conference earlier in the day that all the court sheriffs in Calgary had returned to work and he expected all sheriffs in the province to have returned to work by the end of the day.

Pickets keep warm outside the Edmonton Remand Centre as an illegal strike moved into its fifth day Tuesday. (CBC)

But Susan Slade of AUPE said that wasn't completely true. She said sheriffs in Calgary had not returned, and were in for the long haul.

"I think that's kind of a scare tactic to intimidate our workers to go back into work, saying that there are people who are crossing right now," said Slade. 

"The sheriffs are still out in Calgary and Edmonton, and as far as I know they are planning to stay out."

Grant said all the court services staff in Edmonton and Calgary and all the probation officers in rural areas of Alberta had returned to work.

Earlier on Tuesday, provincial officials said roughly 50 per cent of probation officers in Edmonton and Calgary remained off the job, as well as six court workers in Peace River. 

About 42 staff from the jails crossed the picket line and returned to work, Grant said. He also said the Medicine Hat Correctional Centre was back to normal operations.

However, he said "a reasonably significant" number of people had called in sick.

"We haven't tracked those numbers, but that's an indication in my mind that they want to come back to work but they're scared to cross the picket line," Grant said..

Throughout the strike, Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk denied there were any safety issues at the Edmonton Remand Centre, saying the dispute was about a guard "not liking their boss."

AUPE president Smith said that progress was made when he met with Lukaszuk late Monday for discussions around some of the issues. Talks continued the next day and a deal was reached Tuesday night.