Threat of Canadian border agent strike delayed, but not dead

Source: Journal of Commerce
Date: 10th June 2024

Plans for a possible strike by Canadian customs and border workers have been delayed, giving North American shippers more time to prepare for a potential disruption that could slow freight shipments later this week, especially at truck border crossings.

If a strike by more than 9,000 workers employed by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) does take place, shippers could expect delays of up to four to five hours at border crossing points.

“That’s what we saw during the 2021 strike” by Canada’s Customs and Immigration Union (CIU), a reliable source told the Journal of Commerce. The August 2021 strike lasted two days.

As the strike deadline approached Friday, the CIU agreed to extend mediated contract talks through Wednesday. “I’m hopeful we can reach a deal and avoid disruptions at Canada’s borders,” the CIU national president said in a statement.

The Canadian government called discussions with the CIU productive. “We remain committed to reaching an agreement that is fair and reasonable for members of the Border Services Group as quickly as possible,” the government said in a statement.

But the threat of a strike, possibly later this week, remains. Shippers, meanwhile, should implement contingency plans, the reliable source said.

“Stock up on critical inventory,” the reliable source said. “Consider routing freight away from the busier crossings like Windsor and away from peak times.”

It was also advised to switch less time-sensitive cross-border truck freight to rail and to line up air shipping options for high-value and urgent freight.

“It’s better to be prepared than to start scoping out your alternatives only after a strike starts,” the source said.

The threat of a strike comes as US-Canada cross-border trade is increasing, with the number of trucks entering the US from Canada rising 5.2% year over year in the first quarter, according to US Bureau of Transportation Statistics data.

The biggest threat of disruption would be at truck border crossings, the source said. “Ocean, air and rail cargo would be less affected by a strike, because the majority of those transactions are handled electronically,” he said.

“Where ocean, air or rail shipments could be slowed down by a strike is if they’re flagged for inspection,” he said. “A percentage of shipments are automatically flagged for spot checks.” There are also triggers for the inspection of high-risk shipments.

“Under normal conditions, customs will inform us they’re sending an inspector out in 24 hours to two weeks,” the source said. “During a strike, that could become much more unpredictable.”

‘Work to rule’
A strike wouldn’t shut down the border, because as many as 90% of the unionized CBSA workers are considered essential and would be required to stay on the job. But those essential employees could “work to rule,” slowing freight clearance.

Border agents working during a strike could ask to examine customs invoices and bills of lading. They could question drivers about their stay in Canada and any loads they plan to pick up. They could order cargo to be offloaded from trailers to be inspected.

In 2021, such actions had a ripple effect on supply chains, particularly disrupting industries such as automotive manufacturing. Automakers and suppliers often send components back and forth across the US-Canada border several times.

Shippers rushed some freight to the US-Canada border last week as the initial Friday deadline for a strike approached with the CIU and CBSA deadlocked in negotiations. That slowed bridge and tunnel traffic in Detroit, the largest US-Canada border crossing.

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