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A CBSA strike could soon snarl border traffic. Here’s what you need to know

OTTAWA — Just as the summer travel season gets into gear, Canadians and visitors could find themselves waiting in long lines at the border — delays that could also deal a blow to the economy.

It all depends on what happens with a potential strike by workers at the Canada Border Services Agency, which could start as soon as Thursday.

What’s going on?

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

The union says similar action three years ago “nearly brought commercial cross-border traffic to a standstill, causing major delays at airports and borders across the country.”

But the Treasury Board says 90 per cent of front-line border officers are designated as essential, which means they can’t stop working during a strike.

So how disruptive could a strike be?

Union members could use work-to-rule, a tactic where employees do their jobs exactly as outlined in their contracts.

Ian Lee, an associate professor at Carleton University’s school of business, said that means a border crossing could take much longer than it usually does. That wouldn’t just be a problem for tourists, but disrupt the economy, given $2.5 billion a day in goods crosses the border, he said.

The Treasury Board says “employees in essential services positions must provide uninterrupted border services. They cannot work to rule and they cannot intentionally slow down border processing.”

A spokesperson said the CBSA will discipline workers who “engage in illegal job action.”

But Lee noted border workers have broad discretion when it comes to asking questions. He said it’s unclear how the government can argue a guard is “breaking the law by using their full discretion and authority.”

Stephanie Ross, an associate professor of labour studies at McMaster University, said there is a logistical barrier to the government taking action. She pointed out that work-to-rule means following job duties to the letter.

“People would be doing their work, albeit very thoroughly. How can you discipline people for following procedure?”

Ross said work-to-rule can be very effective.

A border crossing where it might take an extra 10 minutes to get across because the officer is doing everything by the book can “have an enormous disruptive effect magnified by the thousands of individuals, semi-trailers, various kinds of transport coming into Canada,” she said.

What do CBSA employees want?

Mark Weber, the national president of the Customs and Immigration Union, which is part of PSAC, said work-to-rule could be disruptive, but the union is “not there yet.”

Weber said members want pay parity with other law enforcement agencies, with the union looking to how much first-level RCMP constables are paid for comparison.

CBSA is also short thousands of officers, and the union wants those openings to be filled with permanent employees, not contract replacements.

Other issues include pension benefits and protections around “heavy-handed discipline,” Weber said.

Another concern for the union is technology taking over jobs officers would be doing otherwise, like the kiosks that have popped up at Canadian airports.

Weber said the CBSA “are trying to almost create a self-serve checkout kind of system, like you see at grocery stores, at our borders.”

He said that amounts to “almost waiting for smugglers to self-declare with no officers present, which from a national security point of view is extremely concerning.”

And there’s the link to the public service unions’ fight over work-from-home arrangements.

What does the new public service in-office mandate have to do with border guards?

Ottawa recently announced that federal employees must work from the office at least three days a week, starting in September. Public service unions responded by pledging a “summer of discontent” over the new policy.

Then-PSAC president Chris Aylward indicated that includes the CBSA strike, saying in an earlier press conference the “government has to be prepared for a summer of discontent. Whatever that looks like, whether it’s at the borders, whether it’s at the airports.”

Weber said telework is a key issue for the union, and more than 2,000 of its members work remotely or did so previously, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. The union wants to see work from home enshrined in the collective agreement.

He said the government previously promised to set up panels and consult on work-from-home arrangements, and then broke its promise by announcing the three-day-a-week mandate for everyone.

That means the union would be skeptical if government only offers another letter of understanding. “What value does that have anymore?” Weber said.

How likely is a strike?

“We remain at the bargaining table, committed to negotiating a deal that is fair to employees and reasonable to the Canadian taxpayer,” Treasury Board spokesperson Martin Potvin said in a statement.

“With a shared commitment to good faith bargaining, we are optimistic that an agreement can be reached quickly.”

Weber said it’s in the government’s hands “to put a contract forward to avoid a strike. We’re always ready to sit down and negotiate a fair contract.”

Ross said in the lead-up to a strike, there is always an element of posturing, but the 96 per cent vote in favour of 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 take a bit of a longer-term view, there are reasons to believe that things have been festering at CBSA, and that makes the mobilization that we’re seeing in the union side more important to take seriously.”

The workers have been negotiating without a collective agreement for two years, meaning, Ross noted, “there’s a lot of built up frustration around their wages falling behind.”

She said this is the moment where the two sides are waiting to see which one is willing to blink.

The government might not believe the union “has enough organization and unity to pull off a work to rule that would be disruptive,” she said.

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

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

Anja Karadeglija, The Canadian Press


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