Canadian border agent strike looms as unions seek better pay, benefits

A strike looms for more than 9,000 workers at the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA ), which could disrupt supply chains across North America.

The work stoppage for customs and immigration agents could occur as early as Thursday after the recent release of a federal Public Interest Commission report, which set guidelines for a new collective agreement and gave the workers the legal right to strike.

CBSA personnel are represented by Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the Customs and Immigration Union (CIU).

“The clock is ticking,” Sharon DeSousa, PSAC national president-elect, said in a news release. “At every opportunity, Trudeau’s Liberal government has refused to put the needs of workers first, and time is running out to avoid sweeping job action.”

Mediation sessions between the union and federal officials are scheduled to begin Monday. CBSA personnel represented by the PSAC and CIU voted 96% earlier in May for taking the strike.

“Taking job action is always a last resort, but the overwhelming support for our strike mandate shows that we are prepared to do whatever it takes to win a fair contract,” Mark Weber, CIU national president, said in a statement.

Workers have been without a contract for over two years, union officials said.

Key issues PSAC and CIU are bargaining for include higher wages that are aligned with those of 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, according to a release.

Customs and immigration agents with the CBSA are responsible for monitoring more than 100 land border crossings across Canada, as well as airports and marine ports.

Along with customs and immigration officers, CBSA personnel includes intelligence officers, investigators and nonuniformed staff.

In addition to customs and border agents, PSAC represents more than 245,000 public service workers across Canada.

Mike Burkhart, vice president for Canada at C.H. Robinson, said the Canadian government considers most customs workers essential, “meaning they’re required to continue providing some services even during a strike.”

“What we prepare for then is a potential work slowdown, with workers sticking to the clock and performing all duties to the fullest extent,” Burkhart told FreightWaves in an email.

Burkhart said the biggest impact would be to truck freight moving into Canada.

“A border agent must physically be present to review the customs paperwork and scan the barcode on it,” Burkhart told FreightWaves. “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. That’s what we saw during the 2021 strike.”

In August 2021, 9,000 CBSA personnel went on strike for almost two days, leaving trucks lined up at border crossings across Canada for hours.

The PSAC and CIU reached an agreement on Aug. 6, 2021, with the federal government that included pay raises over four years, averaging 2% annually. According to the unions, it also included protections against excessive discipline in the workplace.

Burkhart said if another strike begins Thursday, these delays could have a ripple effect on supply chains, particularly disrupting industries like automotive manufacturing, which relies 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,” Burkhart said. “Ocean, air and rail cargo would be less affected by a strike, because the majority of those transactions are handled electronically.”

For cross-border operators, the potential CBSA strike is another headache on top of a potential strike by railway workers at CPKC, who recently voted for a work stoppage action.

The Canada Industrial Relations Board is reviewing whether a CPKC worker strike could have a negative public safety impact on the country and has pushed back the potential start date.

In the event of a strike by CBSA workers, Burkhart advised shippers to talk to their logistics providers about contingency plans.

“Stock up on critical inventory ahead of time. Consider routing freight away from the busier crossings like Windsor and away from peak times. To minimize the amount of freight that has to travel by truck, convert your less time-sensitive freight to rail. For high-value and especially urgent freight, start lining up air shipping options,” Burkhart said.