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It was the government that blinked: Defiant Alberta jail guards have every right to declare victory

Guy Smith

Even without last night's deal with the Alberta government, Alberta's defiant jail guards would have been entitled to declare a victory in their illegal five-day wildcat strike.

And that was before the illegally striking guards reached the agreement to end their walkout largely on their terms.

The agreement came last night after negotiations between the government and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees -- politely termed discussions to allow the government to save a little face -- that Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk had scornfully vowed would never happen unless the guards unconditionally surrendered first.

The Correctional Peace Officers, who walked out over safety issues the day after the International Day of Mourning for workers killed or injured on the job, will return to work victorious on the International Day of the Worker -- so how about that?

The deal includes no retribution for any AUPE member who joined the strike -- including members of other work units such as Alberta Sheriffs, Probation Officers, social works and court administrative workers who joined their picket lines, all but shutting down court proceedings yesterday in Edmonton and Calgary.

More important, it also includes an agreement for an expedited occupational health and safety review, to be conducted by OH&S officers with full involvement by AUPE -- which has to be seen as a complete vindication for the guards and their longstanding safety concerns about the $580-million Remand Centre that opened just two weeks ago.

There will be a price, of course. Because the members of AUPE Local 003 defied an order of the Alberta Labour Relations Board to return to work, and for a time an order of a judge as well, the union will have to pay fines of $350,000.

Moreover, count on it, the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Alison Redford, a group of people who are used to always getting their way and who are disinclined to be philosophical about it when they are thwarted, will try to exact a price for the union’s audacity in future.

Still, it is said here, today the Local 003 members have every right to celebrate: They pushed their safety concerns about the new jail onto the agenda, after being cavalierly ignored by their own bosses in the Solicitor General's department since they first saw the blueprints years ago.

And they forced Alberta's blustering Deputy Premier to publicly abandon his declaration he would never to negotiate with them until they had meekly surrendered. And they even appear to have driven the province's premier into hiding.

After five days of eerie silence, the premier resurfaced after the deal was reached to say in a press release that "I am pleased AUPE has chosen to end its illegal strike and return to work."

You will read little of this in public statements by either party to the agreement, naturally, and that is as it should be in such circumstances.

"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," the premier also said in her press release. She also dropped hints the government will try to recover the cost of the strike from the union -- an effort bound to fritter away taxpayers' money on legal fees for years if the government is foolish enough to persist.

How did this come about?

Part of the story is solidarity. As a said in an earlier post, I had the privilege of working with AUPE Local 003 members for a dozen years, and I have never met tougher, more united trade unionists.

The government tried to spin the story yesterday that the strike was crumbling and 42 of 2,500 CPOs had returned to work. Good try, but that was hardly a river of returnees. Anyway, it's respectfully said here this tale is mostly baloney.

Part of the story was also the changing mood in the province. The PC Government under Redford is starting to suffer from what we used to call a credibility gap, and that showed in the significant sympathy shown for the guards by many members of the public who would not normally side with public sector unionists.

Even some of the usual far-right suspects over at the Sun News Network who, normally bare their teeth at the mere mention of public employees, wrote fairly laudatory expositions on the guards' battle. However, the anti-union Opposition Wildrose Party was uncharacteristically silent, despite the government's obvious discomfort with the increasingly embarrassing situation.

Aided and abetted by the media, Lukaszuk has also tried pass off the guards' rage as a sly negotiating tactic by their union in its current negotiations with the government in the wake of Redford's post-Bitumen-Bungle budget, in which the party executed a screeching smuggler's turn from pre-election progressive to post-election conservative.

Expect the efforts to retail this unlikely tale to intensify in the coming days, as well as the deputy premier's dubious claim the deal got the union nothing because the review was "always available to them."

Like hell it was! I personally have listened to CPOs' frustration at being ignored and seeing their safety concerns brushed aside by their employer literally for years.

It's said here far more members of the public than might have been the case in the past refused to take the bait, and will likely continue to do so. After all, this is a government that claimed on Day 1 of the strike inmates were tearing the jail apart -- then dropped that story when it proved unproductive.

Much learned commentary will be written about this short dispute in the next few days, interpreting the situation in favour of one side or the other.

My views are well known, but in this situation, it is hard to see how the facts can be interpreted as anything but a victory for the union acting in defence of its members.

Under the circumstances, as AUPE President Guy Smith said last night, the $350,000 fine was "absolutely" worth it. It is money well spent indeed if it saves a single employee's life.

The guards are expected to return to work this morning.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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