EDMONTON (Canadian OH&S News)
Workplace health and safety was at the centre of an Alberta labour dispute that saw workers across the province illegally storm off the job.
On the afternoon of April 26, workers from the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) began to walk off the job in what became a five-day wildcat strike, alleging that conditions inside the new maximum-security Edmonton Remand Centre were unsafe and put its members at risk of injury.
“They’re totally ignoring our issues and they won’t talk about our issues until everyone returns to work. Well, we want to make sure our issues are dealt with and they’re returning to a safe workplace, so we’re in a catch-22 right now,” Dennis Malayko, AUPE’s oh&s representative, said on April 29.
He added that the union created a five-page report on deficiencies, and that the union had never received a copy of the health and safety inspection undertaken by the province.
The union refused to elaborate on what the risks were, explaining that the inmates in the jails could use that information against workers.
In the workers’ absence, management at the remand centre as well as RCMP and police officers from Edmonton and Calgary stepped into the vacant posts at the jails.
The province and the union reached a deal on May 1; workers returned to work, and the province agreed to a new oh&s review of the facility to address concerns and that there would be no retribution for individual union members.
“I am pleased AUPE has chosen to end its illegal strike and return to work. The Government of Alberta has been clear before and during the strike that we take the health and safety of workers seriously and that has not changed. As we have stated repeatedly, we will investigate all new and specific occupational health and safety concerns raised by government employees at the Edmonton Remand Centre,” said Premier Alison Redford in a news release.
The union was fined $350,000 for the action, a price that AUPE president Guy Smith told reporters was “absolutely” worth it.
“The attention drawn to the issues of health and safety of correctional peace officers, especially at the new facility, was so important. Obviously it wasn’t important enough for the government to address beforehand and those workers felt the need to go on the wildcat strike,” he said.
Thomas Lukaszuk, minister of enterprise and advanced education, said he was provided with a list of 10 demands at the beginning of the strike, but would not discuss them with the union until corrections officers returned to work.
“Occupational health and safety officers, who are also AUPE members, have reviewed that facility and have given it a clean bill of health relative to health and safety, however if there are outstanding issues, as I said earlier there is a process to go through,” he said in a conference, adding that the AUPE signed off on all hazard assessments on March 14. “If AUPE officially files any concerns at any time, we will always inspect and investigate.”
The remand centre was designed with employee involvement, Lulaszuk noted, and built on best practices around the world.
The Alberta Labour Relations Board ordered all striking workers back to work on the first full day of the strike, but by that point, workers from nine other correctional facilities in the province had also walked off the job. Joining them throughout the strike were court sheriffs and clerks, probation officers and social workers.
“These workers did the brave thing — the right thing — for demanding a safe workplace. The strike action they have taken is not one that they have taken lightly, or without due consideration,” said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, in a news release. “They have the support of their co-workers at prisons across the province, and the support of the workers in other roles at these prisons.”
On April 11, the union called on the government to delay transferring about 1,400 prisoners to the remand centre until it addressed what it alleged were major safety issues for workers in the facility.
Malayko said the union wanted to be able to test the building and familiarize workers by, for example, only bringing in minimum security inmates at first.
“Nope, they had to do it full blast,” he said, alleging that two members who raised safety concerns were suspended pending an investigation.
The $580-million Edmonton Remand Centre has a capacity of almost 2,000 beds and replaces the 33-year old jail. The centre is built around the direct supervision model, where corrections officers work inside the living units with inmates.