A wildcat strike by prison guards shook Alberta, paralyzing the prison system and quickly escalating. The government’s response to the complaints of workers in the prison system only provoked anger; the suspension of two employees for raising safety complaints provoked the incoming evening shift to refuse to turn up. Later, the government’s intention to seek a court-ordered return to work spread the strike to the 10 correctional facilities across the province. Soon after the order was issued, sheriffs at courthouses across Alberta joined the strike, and some crown prosecutors walked out as well. Monday’s fine of $100,000, to increase by $500,000 per day, showed just how frightened the ruling class was of this development. Calls for a general strike, in the midst of a labour showdown at the heart of the forces of the state, underline the nightmare they feared. Now, the government has agreed to a safety review and the strike is over. There are lessons for the entire labour movement in this inspiring militant strike.

The strike began at the new Edmonton Remand Centre, which the union had decried as unsafe for both guards and prisoners. It had only been a few weeks since it opened, but two employees were suspended on Friday April 26 for continuing to raise health and safety issues. The arrogance of management was on full display, as they chose to attempt to humiliate the suspended employees to set an example, but this ended up backfiring.

Todd Ross, one of the suspended guards, says he was placed on a leave of absence with pay on Friday after he wrote to the director of the remand centre and a deputy minister about workplace safety. Ross said, “It came to a head when [the remand centre executive director] decided to walk me out in front of 70 oncoming correctional officers.” He added, “And he walked me past those and they went into their muster and decided not to go into work and come out and join me on the street.”

This provoked a walkout at 3:00pm, and by evening, all officers were on strike. Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre staff walked out the same evening in solidarity, quickly followed by the Peace River Correctional Centre, the Calgary Remand Centre, and the Calgary Correctional Centre (Spy Hill).

The next day, the Edmonton Young Offender Centre, the Lethbridge Remand Centre, the Red Deer Remand Centre, the Calgary Young Offender Centre, and the Medicine Hat Remand Centre joined the strike. This represents the entire correctional facility system in Alberta. Later  that Saturday, the Alberta Labour Relations Board condemned the strike as illegal, and ordered all workers back to work. Union leaders went on the picket lines and pointed out that they were forced to inform their members that the strike was illegal; if workers did not return to work, they could be served, could receive fines, and could be found in contempt of court and sent to prison. They then told the picketers that they were there to tell them to stay together until the government listened, which was met with cheers. [For video from the CBC, click here]

The Quebec students showed how injunctions by the court system could be defeated with militant, united action. The prison guards were clearly not frightened by fines or even prison time; who would guard the prison guards if they were sent to prison?

On Sunday and Monday, the movement spread even further. Healthcare and social workers at prisons also began to walk out. Sheriffs responsible for the transport of prisoners to trial and for security at courthouses were, at first, refusing to cross picket lines; this soon turned into a general walkout across the province, too. The government was forced to bring in RCMP officers from British Columbia and private security firms to keep the courts functioning, though their knowledge of the X-ray machines is limited. This led to slowdowns in court cases, as searches had to be conducted by hand. In some cases, they even had to be adjourned because judges did not feel safe without a sheriff in the courtroom. Some new cases were not being heard while the conflict continued.

Real leadership, and a fine for showing it

On Monday night at 10:00pm, the Labour Relations Board found the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) guilty of contempt of court. An immediate fine of $100,000 was imposed. When the union asked for a week to pay the fine, the judge contemptuously pointed out that banks were open in the morning and said this strike needed to be “purged” as quickly as possible. In his decision, the judge condemned the union leaders for the way they informed their members of his back to work order, pointing out the union leaders’ sarcasm. He accused them of not showing real leadership and “leaving it to the mob”. This demonstrates what kind of “leadership” the ruling class has come to expect from the unions. The judge’s anger reveals the bosses’ vexation with a leadership that mobilizes members rather than urging them back to work. He also warned the union that if its members were not back to work by noon Tuesday, there would be a further fine of $250,000, bringing the total to $350,000. Wednesday would see a new fine of $500,000, and each day on strike after that would cost a further $500,000.

Tuesday noon came and went, and the prison guards remained on strike. When asked about the fine after the noon deadline, union leaders pointed out, “This is what we pay dues for,” and they would await the results of discussions with the government before choosing to call their members back to work. They also noted that beginning with the fifth day of strike action, union members would be receiving strike pay, regardless of the legal status of the strike. The Edmonton Journal noted:

“‘The minute our people went out, we knew we were going to face some consequences,’ said Erez Raz, an AUPE vice-president who works as a correctional officer. ‘Whatever the fine is, like we’ve said before, we’re supporting our members 100 per cent. That is why we pay union dues to begin with and that’s what it’s used for. The main issue at stake here is the health and safety of people.’

The union’s most recent annual report says its defence fund contained about $38-million as of June 30, 2012. Workers will collect strike pay after five days on the picket line, even though the strike is illegal, said Raz, who expressed confidence talks are going well and the strike will soon end.”

Again, this was a correct tactic; only mass mobilization could win the union’s demands, and no court should be allowed to take away the right to strike. The government was busy all day attempting to create the impression that the strike was fading, pointing out that 42 officers crossed the picket lines and claiming that sheriffs were abandoning the guards’ picket lines. Even using the government’s own numbers, this meant that only about 2% of the striking prison guards had returned to work, and no strike has ever been lost because of a handful of scabs. As for the sheriffs, the union decried this as propaganda; their shift on the picket line was simply over for the day, and they had made no decision on whether to obey their court order. This was not over just yet.

Rumblings of a general strike

Over the weekend, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), of which AUPE is not a member, was holding its convention. Members walked to the labour relations hearing and picketed outside in solidarity with their brothers and sisters on strike. At the same time as the prison guards were going through their fight, the convention saw a motion for the executive to call a general strike if the Alberta government implements right-to-work legislation. The executive objected to the resolution on the grounds that it would tie their hands with an automatic strike. A motion to refer it to the executive, leaving the timing of a general strike open to their judgement, was passed. However this won by only a handful of votes, showing that many delegates preferred an immediate commitment to a general strike. It is clear that there is a mood for strike action within the Alberta labour movement to fight the government’s attacks on workers, and this was the background to the prison guards’ strike. Had the two been linked, the Redford government would have faced a dangerous situation.

In the event of further attacks, the prison guards could not be left to stand alone in the face of the Redford government and the bosses’ courts, and a victory for them would have signified the destruction of the back to work order as a weapon for the foreseeable future. If the prison guards can defy an order and win, what is to stop teachers next time? Or nurses? Or any other workers for that matter? This is precisely why Deputy Premier Tom Lukaszuk was so belligerent in his handling of the strike, and why he repeatedly stressed that there would be no negotiations until this “illegal strike” was at an end. This was far larger than the specific issues facing the prison guards; this was a fundamental question of limiting the power of the workers, without whom nothing — not even the prisons and the courts, the very apparatus of repression used against them — can function.

The workers in uniform and the bosses’ state

The strike by the prison guards, and the sheriffs who joined them, raises precisely this issue in the movement — the nature of the state and the workers who are employed by it. We understand that the state is used to impose the will of the bosses, with ferocious violence at times. For the Marxists, the state is, in the final analysis, armed bodies of men and women in defence of the property of the ruling class. However, even the men and women in the state machinery are not above the crisis in society and the struggle between workers and bosses. In normal periods, the ruling class expects the machine to act like a machine. But a machine made of human beings is not simply an obedient apparatus to be used as one wishes. One only has to look at Tunisia or Egypt to see that the class struggle does not end simply because of a uniform.

In Tunisia, many police officers refused to fire on their brothers and sisters during the revolution, even joining the protesters. In Egypt, soldiers who were placed on the streets to maintain the regime fraternized with the workers and youth, and even shared tea with them while sitting on their tanks for weeks in Tahrir Square. Eventually, Mubarak’s forces could only storm Tahrir in the final days after the generals took all of the ammunition from the soldiers stationed there. In both cases, the awakened class instincts of the workers in uniform spelled the doom of the regimes, who could not use the apparatus, finding it instead to be a bulwark for the revolution.

Some on the left found themselves uncomfortable during the prison strike, and had no straight answer to the question, “Should the prison guards and sheriffs be supported?” We did not share their confusion. The workers in uniform were in conflict with the ruling class who uses them to oppress the rest of the working class. Why should we not have supported them in their struggle? Every conflict between the workers in uniform and the bosses educates the workers about the real nature of the ruling class and builds solidarity that will be an invaluable resource in future struggles.

Another question which had been uncomfortable for some is the question of the prisoners. Many pointed out that at some remand centres the prisoners had been placed in lockdown, and this constituted “unfair punishment for the actions of the prison guards”. The idea had been raised that “the prisoners are the ones who deserve our solidarity”. But this is no different from the propaganda put forward by management in every strike. “The prisons are in chaos; think of the prisoners”, says management. In reality, it was management which instituted the lockdown at these facilities, and the fastest way to get prisoners out of their isolation was for the government to accede to the guards’ demands! Every strike creates inconveniences for those who rely on the services of the workers on strike, and every strike sees these inconveniences raised, blown up, and used as propaganda to demonize the strikers and pressure them back to work. In a nurses’ strike, would these people cry out: “Think of the patients. They’re the ones who need our solidarity”? What about teachers? Should they not be thinking of the children? We cannot raise the language of strike breakers against the workers in uniform.

The prison guards showed tremendous class instincts, and even solidarity of their own with the prisoners. Management had been releasing prisoners on schedule, but had not been providing transportation, leaving released prisoners stranded in remote areas in the cold with no way to get home. But the picketers provided them with warmth and food to do their part. This was far better solidarity than they received from some on the left!

[VIDEO: Prison guards giving food and warmth around a fire to a released prisoner]

Defend the right to strike

The prison guards’ strike came to an end. It appears that the government blinked at the final moment, and spent all of Tuesday in “discussions” (although they were “not negotiations”). It finally “agreed”, but “did not concede”, to the strikers’ main demands. In spite of the government’s spin, it promised a health and safety review of the ERC where the strike first began, and agreed to no consequences to individual strikers as a result of the wildcat or their refusal to obey the court order. The victory was not total. The two employees who were originally suspended remain suspended with pay, the fines have not been reversed, and the government has voiced its intention to sue the union for all expenses incurred during the strike.

Even more troubling is the behaviour of the government since the deal was announced. AUPE President Guy Smith had this to say in a statement posted yesterday to the union website:

“I am furious. This morning in muster Correctional Peace Officers at the Edmonton Remand Centre were told by Deputy Solicitor General Tim Grant that they weren’t protected under the amnesty deal he promised yesterday, and there was no new process to deal with their safety concerns.

“Deputy Solicitor General Tim Grant is telling the public one thing, but behind the closed doors of the Edmonton Remand Centre he is telling our members something completely different.

“Behind closed doors, the government is making reckless statements and inciting our members. Now is the time for them to clearly and unambiguously tell our members that they are going to honour their agreement. If they fail to do so, we will make them answer for their behaviour.

“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.”

Furthermore, Alberta Premier Alison Redford has announced the government will be looking to suspend dues collection for AUPE for the next six months, as well as suing the union for the cost of the strike. According to a Canadian Press article, “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… 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.”

The presidents of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 (UFCW 401), and the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) gathered in a press conference promising to set up a fund to help AUPE pay the fine imposed on it during the strike, but also spoke out against attempts to suspend the union’s dues. At this press conference, Gil McGowan, the president of the AFL, stated, “Going after the entire union’s dues are unwise if the government wants to maintain a good relationship with its workers. It creates a disincentive for a quick and reasonable resolution of conflicts. If the resolution of these kinds of job action results in punishment, then they’ll never get resolved because it will only mean more fines and more hostility.”

These statements should be backed up with action if necessary.

If the government goes back on its word and lashes out at the wildcat strikers, the whole labour movement should be prepared to defend them. The prison guards have shown the way, and now the government cannot be allowed to victimize them and punish them for exercising their right to strike.