A CBSA strike could soon paralyze border traffic. What you need to know


OTTAWA – Just as the summer travel season gets underway, Canadians and visitors could find themselves stuck in long lines at the border – delays that could also hurt the economy.

OTTAWA – Just as the summer travel season gets underway, Canadians and visitors could find themselves stuck in long lines at the border – delays that could also hurt the economy.

Everything depends on what happens with a possible strike by Canada Border Services Agency employees, which could begin as early as Thursday.

What's up?

More than 9,000 members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada who work for the CBSA, including border guards, have secured a strike mandate. The two sides will enter mediation on June 3, and the union will be able to strike on June 6.

The union says similar measures three years ago “nearly brought commercial border traffic to a standstill and caused significant delays at airports and borders across the country.”

But the Treasury Department points out that 90 percent of front-line border guards are considered essential and therefore cannot stop working during a strike.

How disruptive could a strike be?

Union members could use the go-slow strike, a tactic in which workers do their work exactly as specified in their contract.

Ian Lee, an associate professor at Carleton University's business school, said that means crossing the border could take much longer than usual. That would not only be a problem for tourists, but would also threaten the economy, with $2.5 billion worth of goods crossing the border every day, he said.

The Treasury Board states: “Essential staff must ensure uninterrupted border service. They must not perform a service to rule or intentionally slow down border processing.”

A spokesman said the CBSA would discipline workers who “engage in illegal industrial action.”

But Lee noted that border agents have wide discretion when it comes to asking questions. He said it was unclear how the government could argue that a border agent was “breaking the law by using his full discretion and authority.”

Stephanie Ross, an associate professor of labor studies at McMaster University, said there are logistical obstacles preventing the government from taking action, pointing out that working to the rule means strictly following your job duties.

“People would do their jobs, albeit very thoroughly. How can you discipline people for following procedures?”

Ross said going by the book can be very effective.

A border crossing that might take 10 minutes longer to transit because the officer is doing everything by the book could have “a huge disruption effect, exacerbated by the thousands of individuals, semi-trailers and various modes of transport coming into Canada,” she said.

What do CBSA employees want?

Mark Weber, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union, which is part of the PSAC, said the go-slow could lead to unrest, but the union was “not ready yet.”

Weber said members want pay parity with other law enforcement agencies, and the union is comparing the salaries of first-level RCMP police officers.

The CBSA is also short thousands of officers, and the union wants those positions to be filled with permanent employees rather than contract workers.

Other issues include pension entitlements and protection from “harsh discipline,” Weber said.

Another concern of the union is that the technology will take over tasks that would otherwise be performed by officials, such as the kiosks that have popped up at Canadian airports.

Weber said the CBSA is “trying to create essentially a self-checkout system at our borders like you see in grocery stores.”

He said this was “tantamount to waiting for the smugglers to explain themselves without officials present, which is extremely worrying from a national security perspective.”

And then there is the connection to the public sector unions’ fight for home office regulations.

What does the new service authorization agreement have to do with border protection?

Ottawa recently announced that federal employees will have to work in the office at least three days a week starting in September. Public sector unions responded by announcing a “summer of discontent” over the new rule.

Then-PSAC President Chris Aylward suggested this included the CBSA strike, saying in an earlier press conference that the “government must be prepared for a summer of discontent. Whatever that may look like, whether it is at the borders or at the airports.”

Weber said teleworking is a key issue for the union, and more than 2,000 of its members are currently working from home or have done so before, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. The union wants to see homeworking enshrined in the collective agreement.

He said the government had previously promised to set up committees and consult on home office arrangements, but then broke that promise by announcing a three-day week for everyone.

That means the union would be skeptical if the government simply offered another declaration of intent. “What value does that have?” said Weber.

How likely is a strike?

“We remain at the negotiating table and are committed to negotiating a deal that is fair for workers and reasonable for Canadian taxpayers,” Treasury Board spokesman Martin Potvin said in a statement.

“As we are all committed to negotiating in good faith, we are confident that an agreement can be reached quickly.”

Weber said it was up to the government to “propose a collective agreement that prevents a strike. We are always ready to sit down at the table and negotiate a fair contract.”

Ross said there is always a certain amount of fuss in the run-up to a strike, but the 96 percent support for strike action was “very strong.”

Many of the problems are the same as when the union went on strike in 2021, she noted.

“If we look at things a little bit longer term, there are reasons to believe that things are simmering at the CBSA and that makes it all the more important to take seriously the mobilization we're seeing on the union side.”

Workers have been negotiating for two years without a collective agreement, which Ross said has resulted in “a lot of frustration building up over declining wages.”

She said this is the moment when both sides are waiting to see who is ready to give in.

The government may not be convinced that the union is “sufficiently organised and united to carry out a go-slow strike that would lead to unrest,” she said.

But they could find out. We could all find out.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2024.

Anja Karadeglija, The Canadian Press