Three border Canada Border Services on a boat with a ship in the background.Three border Canada Border Services on a boat with a ship in the background.

Thousands of members of the Canada Border Services Agency are in the midst of voting on whether to authorize a strike — something that could roil the movement of billions of dollars of goods via its border with the U.S., airports and sea ports. Nowhere more acutely than the Port of Vancouver.

Some 9,000 CBSA employees represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s Customs and Immigration Union have been holding strike votes across the country since June 16. The last one happens in Ottawa on Monday. While border officers in certain essential roles are forbidden from taking part in any strike, the union believes it has the means to cause meaningful disruptions. 

“We will be very strategic,” union President Jean-Pierre Fortin told American Shipper. “We don’t need to have a shutdown of all the ports of entry to have an effect.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Canada’s supply chains have already been under strain from the unprecedented volatility and surge in demand for consumer products because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The result is erratic and delays availability of a wide range of imports; appliances like refrigerators can take months to arrive. It also comes as pressure mounts for Canada to reopen the land border with the U.S. for nonessential travel. 

“This would be a really bad time for them to go on strike,” said Graham Robins, CEO of Vancouver-based A & A Customs Brokers. 

Labor action would be ‘targeted,’ says union president 

Union members have been without a contract since 2018. Talks with their employer — technically the Treasury Board of Canada — broke down in the fall. They’re seeking pay increases to match other Canadian law enforcement agencies and changes to working conditions.  

Fortin declined to discuss how he anticipated a strike might affect the movement of goods. But he said any labor actions would be “targeted” and wouldn’t disrupt certain essential goods like COVID-19 vaccines. 

“We will not be doing anything that will compromise the health and safety of Canadians,” he said.

CBSA officers keep watch from a truck as an intermodal container prepares to roll by at a Canadian port.
CBSA officers keep watch as an intermodal container prepares to roll by. (Photo: Canada Border Services Agency)

CBSA personnel in roles critical for trade could still be allowed to strike

Because of the nature of CBSA officers’ work, many personnel are forbidden from striking. A 2009 decision by the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board clarifies how personnel are deemed essential. Essential duties include inspections of goods, but not “assessing and collecting duties, taxes, fees and fines,” according to the decision. The decision appears to open the door for a strike to create significant delays for cargo clearance. 

The CBSA, in response to questions from American Shipper, said it will put in place an essential service agreement in the event of a strike “to ensure that there are sufficient border services officers on the job to maintain the security and integrity of our border,” and personnel in essential positions would be forbidden from striking.

“The CBSA will respond quickly to any job action/work disruption in order to maintain the security of our border, ensure compliance with our laws, and keep the border open to legitimate travellers and goods,” CBSA senior spokesperson Rebecca Purdy said in an email.

The CBSA declined to respond to questions about how it plans to collect duties in the event of a strike or if it had any specific plans to mitigate any impacts a strike might have on the movements of the goods.

A view overlooking shipping containers at the Port of Vancouver.
Container volumes have surged at the Port of Vancouver in 2021. (Photo: Jeff Parr/Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Port of Vancouver contends with container surge, congestion 

The Port of Vancouver — Canada’s largest and busiest — has been handling an unprecedented level of container shipping in 2021 along with its competitors up and down the west coast. Vessels are waiting seven days on average for a berth, according to a recent service advisory from Maersk, the global shipping giant. In May alone, Vancouver handled 39% more twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) than it did a year ago, according to port data.

The smaller Port of Prince Rupert in northwestern British Columbia also has seen a surge in container traffic. The Maersk advisory said vessels are waiting two days on average.

A spokesperson for the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority did not respond to American Shipper’s questions about how the port is handling the container traffic and whether it foresees any impacts from a CBSA strike. A spokesperson for the Prince Rupert Authority did not respond, either. 

A graph showing booked inbound container volumes at the Port of Vancouver.
The Port of Vancouver has handled a surge in container volumes in 2021. (To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, click here.)

Robins, of A & A Customs Brokers, said he would expect a CBSA strike to add delays for shipments coming into Canada, particularly at the ports. 

“They are necessary for trade,” Robins said of CBSA officers. “We’d expect to see some kind of slowdown if they strike. Obviously we don’t want to see that.”

Robins noted that even selective actions that add delays to any single port would have a “ripple effect” elsewhere in Canada particularly with the well-oiled intermodal operations of CN and Canadian Pacific railways.  

Beyond west coast ports, the strike could create bottlenecks for trucks at the U.S. border if there are any delays with customs clearance. The trucking industry in British Columbia — and its customers — could find itself contending with more backlogs at the port and the border. 

“We’re following it very closely,” Dave Earle, president and CEO of the British Columbia Trucking Association, said of the CBSA labor dispute. “We are working to make sure that the supply chain continues to operate without interruptions. We’re hopeful there won’t be any.”

Union ‘has to tread a careful line’ if border officers go on strike

While it remains to be seen whether union members will authorize a strike, let alone whether one will happen, they could find themselves in a position that’s even less tenable than the longshoremen who went on strike at the Port of Montreal in April. 

“The union has to tread a careful line in having an effective strike while not opening the door to back-to-work legislation,” said Sara Slinn, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto and a Canadian labor law expert. 

The federal government would have a strong basis for using legislation to force an end to any strike if it caused significant disruptions to the supply chain considering the existing impacts of the pandemic, Slinn said. 

Montreal longshoremen ultimately were forced back to work through legislation after the strike put hundreds of millions of dollars worth of trade on ice. 

Back-to-work legislation would likely have strong public support, particularly if a strike imperils the federal government’s ability to reopen the land border with the U.S. to nonessential travel, Slinn said. 

Fortin, president of the border officers’ union, said while he understands that companies in the supply chain may be worried about the potential effects of a strike, he hopes they will sympathize with the push for a new contract. 

“They should understand the role that we played in facilitating the movement of goods for the past 18 months,” he said. “Our officers faced COVID when the level of danger was quite high.”

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