Alberta courts at risk - sheriffs walk-off

A labour dispute involving Alberta jail guards and security staff is spreading, with provincial sheriffs picketing outside courthouses in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees says some court clerks and social workers have also walked out in solidarity with jail guards, who are off the job at 10 correctional facilities.

"Workers are showing support and solidarity with correctional police officers across the province," union president Guy Smith said on the picket line Monday outside the massive new $580-million Edmonton Remand Centre.

"The corrections officers at the Edmonton Remand Centre are facing a litany of health and safety concerns which they continue to raise, and which have been ignored by the government, and which actually forced the wildcat strike."

The walkout began Friday after two guards at the jail were suspended when they complained about safety at the facility, which started taking inmates for the first time earlier this month.

Alberta Justice spokeswoman Christine Nardella said police and managers are maintaining security at the correctional facilities. She said there have been no disturbances involving inmates.

Nardella said police and managers are also dealing with security at the courthouses and the plan is to keep the court system working as well as it can.

"We are getting a lot of good help from the RCMP and local police agencies to help us transport inmates to and from court and the remand centres. As far as we are able, we will maintain court operations," she said.

The union and the government said there were no immediate plans for any face-to-face talks to resolve the dispute.

Over the weekend the government served some of the guards with court orders to return to work.

Just days before the Edmonton Remand Centre opened, the union said it found five pages of design flaws after touring the facility. Union leaders asked the province to delay the transfer of prisoners from the old remand centre until changes were made.

The Alberta government said the facility was deemed safe by occupational health inspectors.

Deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk has said the union has presented a list of 10 demands that must be met before the guards will return to work, but he said health and safety is only one of the items on the list. Lukaszuk said the union is in the middle of collective bargaining and he suggested it might be using the strike as a pressure tactic.

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