Border agents in Canada may go on strike as early as Friday, a move that would lead to delays at important US land crossings and create logistical problems for the auto industry.  

More than 9,000 workers at the Canada Border Services Agency are seeking improved wages, better retirement benefits and more flexibility on remote work, according to the union representing them. About 90% are deemed essential workers, which means they can’t actually walk off the job. But they can protest conditions by performing only essential job duties and refusing to work overtime. 

When workers staged a brief job action in 2021, cross-border commercial traffic faced long delays. In the event of another strike, trucking firm C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc. expects delays of four to five hours for freight trucks headed from the US into Canada. In early 2022, protesters created a temporary crisis when they blocked for days the Ambassador Bridge that connects Detroit with Windsor, Ontario — a vital artery for goods shipments between the two countries. 

Automakers that depend on just-in-time delivery would face disruption quickly. “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,” Mike Burkhart, a vice-president at C.H. Robinson, said by email.

Many auto factories keep limited inventories of parts. “If you don’t have the supplies coming into the plant, then you’re in a situation where you would look at having to shut down the assembly line, and nobody wants to do that,” said David Adams, chief executive officer of Global Automakers of Canada, which represents the local operations of companies such as BMW AG, Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp.

To avoid longer delays, Burkhart suggested manufacturers avoid busier border crossings such as Windsor-Detroit or use alternative shipping methods. Ports, airports and rail are expected to be impacted less by any labor action. 

Border services workers are seeking more flexibility to do remote work when possible, as well as higher pay and the ability to retire after 25 years, according to Mark Weber, national president of the customs and immigration union within the Public Service Alliance of Canada. The earlier retirement would bring the agency in line with other Canadian law enforcement agencies and help improve recruitment, he said.

Trade Challenges

The Treasury Board of Canada, which manages the federal public service, has said that the union’s wage demands are too high while disputing the recruitment challenges.

Labor disputes have been a feature of Canadian logistics sector over the past year. Port workers in British Columbia went on strike last July, disrupting billions of dollars of trade, and workers at Canadian National Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific Kansas City Ltd. have threatened a walkout this summer. 

Adams said the labor unrest may make foreign investors think twice about new direct investment in Canada and lead some companies to use US ports instead.

“A lot of members are increasingly frustrated by the series of strikes or potential strikes that are occurring across the Canadian transportation logistics system,” Adams said. “It doesn’t paint the picture of Canada as being a very reliable trading partner for industries that are looking to be able to have some consistency.” 

The government said in a statement Wednesday that it’s “fully committed to reaching an agreement that is fair for them and reasonable for taxpayers.” Border officers can’t intentionally slow down border processing, and employees who take “illegal job action” may face discipline, it said.