Alberta wants to recoup jail guard strike costs, suspend union dues collection

The Alberta government plans to recoup its financial losses from an illegal strike by jail guards and stop deducting dues for the largest union in the province, a move that could hobble the massive labour group.

Premier Alison Redford said the almost five-day walkout by guards cost taxpayers $1.3 million per day and Albertans should not be on the hook for an unlawful job action.

"Very clearly that's the reason that we believe we can pursue costs," Redford said Wednesday in Calgary. "We won't file the full application with respect to that until we've calculated all the costs."

Guards at the new Edmonton Remand Centre illegally walked off the job Friday citing health and safety concerns and others from nine other correctional facilities followed. Other members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, including some court clerks, sheriffs and social workers, also joined in support.

The union and government came to an agreement Tuesday night and workers returned to their jobs Wednesday.

Solicitor General Jonathan Denis said the collective bargaining agreement with the union allows for a claim that will go before an arbitration board. He said the government will insist that the union reimburse taxpayers through that process.

"We not only hope that the union will pay. We insist that the union will pay for the costs that they have put onto taxpayers," Denis said.

The government has also filed a notice of intent with Alberta's public service commissioner to suspend the deduction of dues and other fees for AUPE from all of its members for six months, starting April 28.

The notice cites the illegal strike as the reason for the dues collection suspension.

Unions depend on dues to finance most of their operations. AUPE represents more than 22,000 government workers.

AUPE president Guy Smith said the threats are jeopardizing ``the hard-won labour peace.``

He said in his talks with deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk, he was promised amnesty and no retribution for union members but said the threats by the province could destroy that agreement.

"I am furious,`` Smith said in a release issued late Wednesday. "They are throwing fuel on still-hot coals. They are threatening a labour peace that was agreed to only on the basis of deputy premier Lukaszuk's promise to quickly deal with safety concerns at the Edmonton Remand Centre, and his promise of an amnesty for our members.

He said if the province seeks any disciplinary retribution, the union will take whatever action is necessary to protect its members.

The Alberta Federation of Labour said it will help fight an attempt by the province to suspend the collection of union dues.

Federation president Gil McGowan said under Alberta law the government can apply to suspend the collection of dues for a union local involved in an illegal strike, but not the entire union.

McGowan said the move is bound to sour relations with other unions across the province.

"We think this idea of suspending union dues is a punitive measure that is not only illegal, it is unwise if the government wants to maintain decent labour relations with its workers," McGowan said. "We are going to be putting political pressure on this union to step away from this bully approach to labour relations."

McGowan made the remarks following a news conference that included the United Nurses of Alberta, United Food and Commercial Workers and the Health Sciences Association.

The federation is also setting up a fund to raise money to help pay the $350,000 in fines that AUPE faces because of the illegal strike.

Jail guards walked out after the suspension of two workers at the new $580-million remand centre in Edmonton and then other guards at correctional facilities across Alberta followed suit. The union said it was the result of health and safety concerns shared by front-line correctional peace officers.

Smith said the agreement that ended the walkout specifies that the government will do an occupational health and safety review to investigate concerns that have been raised about the new remand facility, which took in its first batch of 800 inmates in March.

Redford insisted the government had not made any concessions by agreeing to look at the union's concerns.

"Now that the illegal strike is over ... what we have said is there are processes in place — and there were those same processes in place on Friday morning before this action started — that will allow those concerns to be addressed."

Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason said the government is being unfair.

"It sounds like they're going to punish the union very heavily for what's gone wrong and take no responsibility themselves," said Mason.

"(Deputy premier) Thomas Lukaszuk poured gasoline on the fire and ... if he had approached things in a little more conciliatory way, this strike could have been settled on the second day. The government is not taking any role for its role in exacerbating the dispute."

Mason said the government should be on the hook for some of the costs. He suggested the union could be destroyed if forced to pay $6.5 million in costs to the province for the five days of the strike.