Politico

Canada-U.S. border reopening threatened by 'dramatic' disruption after strike vote


OTTAWA — An intensifying labor dispute is threatening to snarl Justin Trudeau’s plans to reopen the Canadian border to vaccinated Americans.

Unions representing 8,500 staffers with the Canada Border Services Agency have voted “overwhelmingly” in favor of strike actions that could begin as soon as next week, their leaders announced Tuesday.

“They’re clearly fed up with the disrespect they’re being shown by the CBSA and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government — and they’re ready to do what it takes to get a fair contract,” Chris Aylward, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, told a press conference. “If we’re forced to call a strike because of the government’s inaction, CBSA employees could potentially take strike action as early as Aug. 6.”

Risk of border slowdown: The timing of the potential strike could complicate Canada’s reopening plan before it’s due to get going three days later.

The Trudeau government announced last week that Canada will begin allowing fully vaccinated Americans to enter the country for discretionary travel on Aug. 9.

Aylward said border officers working to rule, for example, could create “dramatic disruptions” to the flow of goods, services and people entering Canada.

“It could very well jeopardize Canada’s plan to reopen the Canada-U.S. border to fully vaccinated Americans travelers,” said Aylward, who was joined by Customs and Immigration Union national president Mark Weber.

Weber said the unions have yet to sketch a specific plan or strategy for the strike actions because they think there’s still time to get back to the bargaining table.

The labor standoff: Talks between the unions, the border agency and the Treasury Board of Canada dragged on for three years before they hit a stalemate last December.

Weber said that data from the government’s own public service employee survey have long shown CBSA at the bottom when it comes to employee satisfaction.

“It’s also at the top for issues related to harassment, workplace violence and management intimidation,” Weber said. “These results aren’t surprising to me at all. Our members love the work they do, but they’re grappling with a toxic workplace at the CBSA that really needs to be overhauled.”

Weber said CBSA staffers are also seeking parity with other law enforcement agencies. The government offered border officers less than what it gave to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, he added.

The government’s take: Later Tuesday, Trudeau was asked about the possible strike and whether it might influence his plans to ease border measures for vaccinated Americans.

He said that border guards faced challenges such as reduced staffing during the pandemic combined with an increase in responsibility.

“We’re going to work with them and we’re hopeful there won’t be any disruptions,” Trudeau told reporters.

A spokesperson for Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos reiterated Tuesday the government’s position that it’s disappointed PSAC rejected a “fair offer.” The government says the offer included wage adjustments and provisions in line with deals reached with representatives of more than 88 percent of federal public servants.

“Our goal is to take constructive steps to advance negotiations and we remain open to returning to the bargaining table at any time,” the statement said.

Border strike would ‘cripple’ supply chains: Dennis Darby, president of the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, said Tuesday that the economy can’t afford another trade disruption. He called on all parties to return to the table.

“Any disruption will have significant impacts on our economic recovery and on the flow of essential goods into Canada,” Darby said in a statement. “This situation will cripple manufacturers’ ability to get the essential components and goods to sustain global supply chains, and threatens thousands of Canadian businesses.”

State of the border: Taking a more conservative approach, the Biden administration has renewed restrictions at the U.S.-Canada land crossings until at least Aug. 21.

Business leaders, families and lawmakers in districts along the U.S. northern border have been pressing Trudeau and President Joe Biden for months to reopen the shared land crossings to nonessential travel. Following Canada’s announcement last week, the focus and the pressure has been directed at Biden to produce a reopening plan.

On Monday, the White House said the U.S. will maintain its current travel restrictions, citing the Delta variant and the rise in cases driven by the highly infectious form of Covid-19.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the restrictions are likely to stay in place during the weeks ahead. But Psaki also noted that “nothing is indefinite.”

More from the prime minister: Trudeau was also asked Tuesday if he jumped the gun with his plan to loosen border controls for U.S. travelers starting Aug. 9, given the rise of Delta cases among Americans.

“The health data is fairly clear that allowing for travel of fully vaccinated individuals is low risk,” Trudeau told reporters in Moncton, N.B. “It’s not zero risk, but it is low risk.”

Trudeau added he’s confident it’s the right step because cases remain low in Canada, which plans to welcome fully vaccinated travelers from other countries starting Sept. 7.

The government will move forward gradually and monitor the situation very carefully to avoid going backwards, he said.

What’s next: The unions say the government can avoid strike actions by returning to the table with a fair plan.

“Even though we received the strong strike vote mandate from members, a strike is not inevitable — yet,” Weber said.

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