Ports and border crossings could be impacted by potential CBSA strike

by Derek Clouthier

More than 9,000 members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada working for the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) have secured a strike mandate which could lead to significant disruptions to the flow of goods, services and people at Canadian ports of entry.

Members voted 96 per cent in favour of taking job action during strike votes held April 10 to May 23.

“Taking job action is always a last resort, but this strong strike mandate underscores that our members are prepared do what it takes to secure a fair contract,” said Chris Aylward, PSAC national president. “Unless they want a repeat of 2021, Treasury Board and CBSA must be prepared to come to the table with a fair offer that addresses our key issues.”

In 2021, job action by CBSA personnel nearly brought commercial cross-border traffic to a standstill, significantly impacting their operations until an agreement was reached.

As the possibility of a CBSA strike looms, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) has written to transportation industry stakeholders warning of potential disruptions at ports and border crossings nationwide and urging them to pressure the government to negotiate a fair collective agreement for FB group members as soon as possible to avoid delays in the event of job action.

PSAC said in a release that trucking companies, customs brokers and parcel delivery services all rely on the safe and efficient transmission of goods across the border.

Mike Burkhart, vice-president for Canada at C.H. Robinson, says the trucking sector would be particularly hit hard by a strike.

“The biggest impact would be on freight traveling into Canada by truck, because a border agent must physically be present to review the customs paperwork and scan the bar code on it. We manage more  than 650,000 shipments across the Canadian border a year, so we can say from experience that a slowdown in this process can create wait times of four to five hours,” says Burkhart. “These delays had a ripple effect on supply chains, particularly disrupting industries like automotive manufacturing that rely on just-in-time delivery of parts and components. Many of our automotive customers treat North America as one interdependent supply chain. So parts traveling to Canada are often coming all the way from Mexico, and one late part can shut down an entire production line.”

He added that although ocean, air and rail shipments would be less impacted by a CBSA strike, it would not go unnoticed.

“Where ocean, air or rail shipments could be slowed down by a strike is if they’re flagged for inspection,” says Burkhart. “A percentage of shipments are automatically flagged for spot checks, and there are also triggers indicating an inspection is needed for shipments deemed high-risk. Under normal conditions, customs will inform us they’re sending an inspector out in 24 hours to two weeks. During a strike, that could become much more unpredictable.”

CBSA spokesperson Luke Reimer clarified that the border will remain open and safe.

“Ninety per cent of all frontline border services officers are essential workers,” he says. “This means they will continue to staff ports of entry in the event of a strike. It is also important to note that members of the FB group are not in a legal strike position at this time. As such, they are expected to work their normally scheduled shift, including during any planned demonstrations.”

Reimer says that at this time, any labour action that blocks or intentionally slows the free flow of people or goods at Canadian borders would be illegal.

“The CBSA is monitoring the situation closely, is committed to working quickly to mitigate any impacts,” says Reimer, “and will keep the public informed through its website and social media channels.”

PSAC-Customs and Immigration Union (CIU) members at CBSA include border services officers at airports, land entry points, marine ports and commercial ports of entry, inland enforcement officers, intelligence officers, investigators, trade officers and non-uniformed headquarters staff.

Key issues in this round of bargaining include wages that are aligned with other law enforcement agencies across the country, flexible telework and remote work options, equitable retirement benefits and stronger protections around discipline, technological change and hours of work.

Both parties last met at a Public Interest Commission (PIC) hearing April 22. The Commission’s report is expected to be released before mediation sessions scheduled to begin June 3 to seek a resolution to the bargaining impasse. PSAC-CIU will be in a legal strike position following the release of the report.