Canada Border Services employees vote in favour of strike action, could create issues at border this summer

By Lauryn Heintz and Aastha Pandey-Kanaan

More than 9,000 members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) who work for the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) have voted overwhelmingly for a strike mandate, the union said Friday.

This could lead to significant disruptions to the flow of goods, services, and people at Canadian ports of entry during the busy summer season.

Strike votes held from April 10 to May 23 showed 96 per cent of members are in favour of taking job action, the PSAC says.

“Taking job action is always a last resort, but this strong strike mandate underscores that our members are prepared to do what it takes to secure a fair contract,” Chris Aylward, PSAC National President, said in a statement. “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.”

Job action by CBSA workers in 2021 ended following a 36-hour bargaining session following major delays at airports and borders across the country, prompted by a near standstill of commercial cross-border traffic.

Workers impacted by the strike notice 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.

According to PSAC, workers have been without a contract for over two years. Members claim the Treasury Board and CBSA are still not ready to negotiate an agreement that protects workers and continues to demand concessions at the bargaining table.

The union says key issues in this round of bargaining are fair wages aligned with other Canadian law enforcement agencies, flexible telework and remote work options, equitable retirement benefits, and stronger protectors around discipline, technological change, and hours of work.

“Our members’ response to this vote has been unprecedented — we extended the voting period to meet the overwhelming demand from workers,” said Mark Weber, CIU National President, in a release. “We’re sending a clear message to the employer: we’re prepared to fight for fair wages, equitable retirement and to make CBSA a better place to work.”

Laurie Trautman, the Director at Border Policy Research Institute tells CityNews workers’ demands are not being met to their satisfaction and if the strike happens, it will be in the next few weeks.

Trautman says one of the points of contention could be the automation of certain workloads at the border.

“The border is now back to where it was pre-pandemic, we don’t have ArriveCan and these other requirements anymore. So there’s a lot of new sort of technologies that are coming into play,” she said.

“The Canadian federal government, and the US federal government for that matter, are moving to automate more systems at the border. That would of course remove the need for as many border officers in particular.”

The expert says, 90 per cent of frontline border service officers are considered “essential,” so the vast majority of the people will continue to work.

“The impacts won’t be as drastic for passenger travel,” Trautman said.

“It’s really going to be felt much more in the commercial travel sector where officers that are collecting customers or duties or taxes are not considered essential.”

Trautman says whether it’s an airport or land border, where you have passenger processing and commercial processing side by side, anytime there are disruptions there could be spillover expected.

“The border is really a revolving door, whether you’re going one way you’re probably crossing it the other way as well,” she said.

“Canadians coming into the US who in our region are already facing pretty long wait times for other reasons if they’re looking at going back home. And there could be anything that creates some unpredictability that does impact the two-way flow.”

The last meeting between the two parties was at a Public Interest Commission hearing last month. A report from the commission is expected to be released in the coming days.

Mediation sessions are set to begin on June 3 to find a solution to the bargaining impasse, PSAC says.

“We’re committed to reaching a fair contract that protects workers and improves working conditions for our members,” said Aylward. “As summer travel season nears, we hope the Trudeau Liberal government is making these negotiations a top priority. The window to avert a strike is closing quickly.”

In a statement, the federal government says it is “fully committed” to reaching a fair and reasonable agreement for border services employees.

“We recognize that labour action is a legitimate part of collective bargaining,” it said. “Employees have the right to strike, but at this time it is unnecessary. We are ready and willing to return to the bargaining table at any time.”

The government says there are over 9,500 represented border services group employees at the CBSA and 90 per cent of them work in positions deemed essential which means they have to continue providing services during a strike.

-With files from Michelle Meiklejohn.

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