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Chances of disruption to cargo flows in and out of Canada went up a notch when customs and immigration agents voted to strike over their contract negotiations with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

The proposal was supported by 96% of the Border Services group of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), and the union noted its members had been without a contract for more than two years.

Chris Aylward, national president, said: “Taking job action is always a last resort, but this strong strike mandate underscores that our members are prepared do what it takes to secure a fair contract.

“Unless they want a repeat of 2021, Treasury Board and CBSA must be prepared to come to the table with a fair offer that addresses our key issues.”

The last time PSAC members resorted to industrial action was in 2021. This nearly brought commercial cross-border traffic to a halt before a 35-hour bargaining session produced an agreement.

For Canadian cargo owners and logistics providers, this is another potential headache on top of the spectre of a shutdown of the national rail network in a dispute between staff and the two Canadian Class I rail carriers.

Workers at Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Kansas City voted for strike action at the beginning of May, but the request from the government for the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) to review if a strike could have a negative impact on the country in regard to public safety has pushed back the potential start date.

The union is in a position to strike within 72 hours after the CIRB ruling, expected at the end of this month. However, the government stressed that a strike would be unnecessary, as mediated negotiations were set to commence on 3 June. And the Canadian International Forwarders Association has written to the government arguing that a 72-hour notice period is insufficient, as supply chains need 30 days or more to prepare for work stoppages.

Anxiety over the impact of a rail strike has been arguably greater than over industrial action at the CBSA, mostly because, Ottawa says, 90% of the CBSA frontline staff are classified as essential workers, who are not eligible for strike action.

This has not allayed concerns completely, though.

“Both our customs and freight clients are quite nervous should customs go on strike, even if 90% would not be able to walk out. The slowdowns and disruptions would have an enormous impact on importers,” said Michelle McCaughan, senior director, sales and operations, at Montreal-based  AGO Transportation.

“Many importers, especially smaller ones, do not carry a large overhead of stock, preferring to import according to actual orders they have on hand. We are strongly suggesting they bring in extra stock or ship earlier then the delivery deadline in case of custom clearance disruptions.”

And Karl-Heinz Legler, general manager of Rutherford Global Logistics, noted that wiggle room for forwarders to develop alternative solutions for customers was rather limited, owing to a convergence of constraints.

To begin with, he explained, congestion and equipment shortages in Asia, notably China, plus the problems in the Red Sea, had resulted in extended routings and transit times and higher costs. In Canada, operators were already contending with congestion and shortages of rail cars, causing delays out of the ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert. And the labour dispute at the port of Montreal harboured the possibility of yet another work stoppage disrupting traffic flows.

“Forwarders can get truck capacity to get cargo out of Vancouver and move it across the country, but that would cost over $10,000 more. And where would you get all this truck equipment? There isn’t enough,” he added.

“Big companies that have the ways and means will get their cargo; small and mid-sized companies will suffer.”

He is optimistic that the various labour disputes will be resolved, but finds the sheer number of headaches daunting.

“I haven’t seen such a possibility of chaos ever – such a bundling of negative logistics scenarios,” he said.

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