Some Alberta jail guards ignoring back-to-work order

Guards at correctional and remand centres across Alberta have been ordered back to work after the province's labour relations board ruled their strikes illegal.

Guards off the job at 10 Alberta correctional and remand centres

Guards at correctional and remand centres across Alberta have been ordered back to work after the province's labour relations board ruled their strikes illegal.

By Saturday night, cease-and-desist orders were in place at 10 centres in Alberta, according to Dan Laville, communications director for the solicitor general's office.

The province brought the injunction before the Alberta Labour Relations Board earlier Saturday after seven jails were placed on lockdown due to a walkout by guards, members of the Alberta Union of Public Employees. 

The ruling applied initially to only the Edmonton Remand Centre and Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre, but by late Saturday, Laville confirmed that there were illegal strikes at 10 facilties in the province and that guards at each of them were now being ordered back to work. 

Following the initial decision, AUPE president Guy Smith acknowledged the board's ruling, but encouraged guards to stay off the job, a suggestion that was greeted by wild applause and cheering, the CBC's Janice Johnston reported.

"We’re saying to you stay out here, stay strong, with your brothers and sisters across this province. Let’s stay out here until we get what we need from this government — until they listen to us," he said.

Guards at the new Edmonton Remand Centre ignored the ruling and vow to stay off the job.

Until the government is willing to sit down and discuss some of the occupational health and safety concerns raised by those guards, members may not be willing to go back on the job, Smith said.

The Fort Saskatchewan guards are also vowing to stay out until their safety concerns are addressed.

No talks while job action continues, says deputy premier

Smith met with Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk earlier on Saturday.

"I indicated to him that it’s heartbreaking that a brand-new $580-million facility that taxpayers paid for is being trashed right now by inmates," Lukaszuk said late Saturday afternoon.

Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk said that the government will not negotiate with the union while guards remain off the job. (CBC)

Lukaszuk said that the AUPE president presented him with a list of 10 demands. But Lukaszuk insisted nothing would be discussed until the guards return to work.

"We will not be negotiating with a union that chooses to engage in illegal activities," he said, adding that the matters should be resolved through legal means like grievances, arbitration and bargaining talks.

Lukaszuk says that RCMP and municipal police services across the province are helping to keep the facilities open. He said the government's priority is maintaining safety.

Smith called his meeting with Lukaszuk short and frustrating.

"To go into a meeting thinking that you’re going to make some solutions to a very volatile situation across the province, and have them point their finger at [me] and tell me that I should be telling my members to go back to work — it’s shameful," he said.

Protesters gather

Several hundred protesters gathered outside the labour relations board office in Edmonton to await the decision earlier in the afternoon.

Speaking at the hearing, government of Alberta lawyer Hugh McPhail said there is a real fear the strike action could spread to other institutions across the province throughout the day.

He called the situation "very serious," and said that the affected facilities are currently "woefully understaffed."

At the new Edmonton Remand Centre, over 150 workers picketed and blocked off all three entrances to the facility.

Eight centre nurses were escorted out of the facility by site management amid safety concerns, with Smith stating they were in "imminent danger."

CBC News also learned that one inmate — described as high profile —  had to be removed from the facility by nine Edmonton Police tactical officers.

Earlier Saturday, the director of Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Facility reported that four officers were left in charge of the institution’s 450 inmates on Friday night. He said officers and managers have been working around the clock in an attempt to compensate for the lack of staff.

Injunction hearing

The executive director of the new Edmonton Remand Centre and director of the Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre testified at the hearing held Saturday morning in Edmonton, which ruled in support of the injunction filed by Justice Minister Jonathan Denis late Friday night.

Unionized workers protest outside the Edmonton Remand Centre on Saturday morning. (CBC)

"Our first priority is ensuring public safety and security," the minister said in a release.

"Any threats to public safety are dealt with swiftly and seriously by this government," he said, adding that the province will be conducting a full investigation of the walkout. "Contingency plans are in place and being implemented as needed."

Earlier Saturday, union vice president Carrie-Lynn Rusznak said workers need to see whether the province has made any concessions regarding safety issues. If there is a back-to-work order, workers will decide for themselves whether to return to work, she added.

One union leader at the remand centre told CBC News union members will have to discuss whether they’ll abide by the injunction. He said guards do not want to return to work until the province addresses the health and safety issues they have raised.

Guards walk out

The job action started at the new Edmonton Remand Centre on Friday when corrections officers responsible for staffing the afternoon shift refused to report for duty.

The Edmonton Remand Centre, which opened two weeks ago, houses about 1,100 inmates. (CBC)

Guards at the centre say their concerns about safety inside the facility are being ignored by the Alberta government. They're also protesting the suspension of two union members who sources say have objected to the working conditions.

Clarke McChesney, the chair for AUPE Local 003, said the union was there to talk to members about health and safety concerns when the representatives were escorted from the workplace Friday afternoon.

The two union reps have been suspended with pay. Denis confirmed the walkout early Saturday and said the workers are engaging in an illegal job action.

Seventy workers who arrived for the Friday afternoon shift refused to go inside, prompting officials to put the facility into lockdown and restrict prisoners to their cells.

Government spokesman Josh Stewart said the facilities were placed in "normal nighttime lockdown," and that striking staff were replaced by police and RCMP officers, along with correctional supervisors.

The new centre, replacing the 33-year-old remand centre in downtown Edmonton, is the size of 10 CFL football fields and rests on a site the size of 27 football fields. It currently holds around 1,100 inmates.

Concerns over open-concept design

The facility's network of hallways leads to different self-contained pods, where prisoners are held. In most cases, the pods are open.

Newer correctional centres in Canada use this design, called direct supervision. There are no barriers separating the guards from the prisoners in the designated pods. The hope is the layout will help guards keep a closer eye on inmates and improve how the two sides relate to each other.

Jeremy Veenstraw of Alberta Correctional Services recently told CBC News it will take some time for staff to adapt to the new design in the massive remand centre.

"It's a lot more open. It's a lot less restricting. It puts officers face to face with inmates," he said.

Just days before the jail opened, the AUPE said it found five pages of design flaws after touring the $580-million facility.

At that time, Smith asked the provincial government to delay the transfer of prisoners from the old remand centre until the changes were made.

With files from The Canadian Press