'You'll see disruptions': Union warns strike vote could jeopardize border reopening

The union representing Canada’s border guards is urging members to approve a strike after failed collective bargaining talks, and is warning there could be disruptions at land crossings and airports as a result.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada represents more than 9,000 workers in the Customs and Immigration Union, who’ve continued to screen reduced traveller volumes through the pandemic at the land border crossings into Metro Vancouver as well as Vancouver International Airport.

"If governments want to see a smooth reopening of the borders — which we all do, there's no doubt about that — then that's not going to happen unless CBSA comes to the table with a fair offer,” said Chris Aylward, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. “You will see disruptions at the borders, at all of the points of entry, including the international airports as well, such as YVR, you will witness delays because of this labour disruption.”

Long-term issues like wage parity with other law enforcement agencies, paid breaks and a toxic workplace culture have been sticking points in negotiations, according to the union. Border guards have also been deeply frustrated that they have not been prioritized for vaccinations like their colleagues; the union says neither the federal government nor provincial governments would fast-track them for COVID-19 vaccines, despite the workers being in close quarters with travellers.

B.C. Premier John Horgan was an early advocate of closing borders at the start of the pandemic, and is still reluctant to reopen too soon, but that decision ultimately lies with the federal government, which has not provided a firm reopening date.

While the Canada-U.S. border has been closed to recreational travellers since March 21, 2020, essential workers – for example, those importing food and goods – have been allowed. On Wednesday, the federal government announced Canadians with both COVID-19 vaccine doses will be eligible to travel next month. 

That gives border guards even more leverage to resolve their ongoing labour dispute.

“We’re asking you to vote YES to a strike mandate so that we can send a clear message to CBSA,” reads a letter to members. “Your support will give our bargaining team the leverage we need to call a strike if necessary.” 

Information sessions for the electronic strike vote begin next week, with British Columbia border guards eligible for webinars and a strike vote starting Thursday, June 17. If ratified, job action could take the form of rotating strikes, picketing and refusal to collect excise tax, and could begin as early as mid-July. 

CTV News has asked the Canada Border Services Agency for an interview, which the agency refused, directing questions about the status of the collective bargaining to the Treasury Board of Canada.

"CBSA officers have proven their incredible resilience and dedication since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic by helping to prevent the spread of the virus and its variants, while facilitating the flow of essential goods," wrote a CBSA spokesperson in an email statement Thursday afternoon. "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."

Talks between the union and CBSA broke down in December, more than two years after they began. The union says the angry non-essential travellers its members have faced and sent home during the pandemic have only made the situation worse, as has the high-exposure setting in which they work.

“Bill Blair, the public safety minister, is quoted as saying CBSA officers who have been answering the call throughout this entire pandemic have done an etraordinary job,” said Aylward. “However, his praise is simply lip service because we haven’t seen the same recognition at the bargaining table.”