Labour dispute hits border services

Staff at Canada Border Services Agency take a strike vote and farmers ponder the ramifications

Farmers are used to worrying about labour disputes at Vancouver and Montreal.

But what about a dispute along the giant Canada-United States border, as well as airports, ports and other import-export centres?

It isn’t what those connected to Canada’s export-focused agricultural industry want to think about, but it’s a possibility now that Canada’s border staff union has been conducting a strike vote.

“This could be a really big deal. Hopefully, it’s just a negotiating tactic,” said Al Mussell of Agri-Food Economic Systems, an economic analysis outfit focusing on Canada’s farms and food industry.

Dominic LeBlanc

The Canada Border Services Agency’s 8,500 members haven’t had a contract for more than three years. The Customs and Immigration Union began holding strike votes this summer and has been in protracted talks with the federal government but hasn’t yet been able to achieve a number of objectives, it says.

The effect of a strike, which isn’t a certainty even with a successful strike vote, is hard to assess because there are many complicating factors. Beyond the union’s own decision about any labour action are special circumstances that apply to border agents, such as essential services and security concerns.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is the most directly involved federal agency in Canada’s enormous import-export agriculture industry, but anything that potentially snarls people and commercial traffic along the border, ports or airports would obviously have an impact on agricultural trade. At the very least, the possibility of a border agents strike injects uncertainty into the approach to a busy fall shipping season.

Federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the government is confident the dispute can be handled in a way that doesn’t create chaos at border crossings.

“We’re hoping that we can arrive at the appropriate settlement before that would even be an issue,” he said on CBC.

“The country cannot be in a position where we have insecure borders.”

However, security concerns are different than commercial considerations in agricultural trade.

Canadian imports of fruits and vegetables are greatly affected by delays. Exports of chilled meats have a limited amount of time they can be in transit.

Virtually all commercial shipments are bound by contracts that contain delivery commitments. Anything that complicated those would hurt Canada’s food exports.

ed.white@producer.com

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