What Happens When Canada Border Agents Strike?

A truck carrying a freight shipment waits at the Canadian border

On June 11, 2024, the Canadian government and the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the union representing over 9,000 Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) workers, reached a tentative collective agreement.

New of the agreement eased fears of a labor action that would have slowed activity at the border, including the movement of Canada-bound freight shipments. 

Shippers and drivers who braced for the impact of a possible strike on their day-to-day can now breathe a sigh of relief.

But this isn't the first time trade at the U.S-Canada border has braced for the impact of potential labor actions, and it's unlikely to be the last. To that end, let's take a look at what shippers should expect if Canadian border agents strike in the future. 

At Anderson Trucking Service, Inc. (ATS), we regularly assist shippers in cross-boarding shipping into Canada. Our experience navigating this vital border allows us to provide valuable insights to our customers, and to you. 

In this article, we'll outline all the potential pain points shippers need to be aware of if a strike at the Canadian border were to occur. 

You'll walk away armed with the knowledge necessary to prepare your supply chain and discuss possible changes to your plans with your transportation provider in the event of a strike. 

Will the Canadian Border Close In the Event of a Strike?

The U.S.-Canada border will not fully close if border agents strike.

As of 2024, 90 percent of frontline border services officers in Canada are considered essential workers. This means they legally cannot strike and will continue to staff ports of entry in the event of a labor action. 

However, the more than 9,000 border agents affected by the contract mediation could  take a page from the group's partial strike in 2021 and implement a work-to-rule campaign.

Work-to-rule is a labor action in which workers perform only the minimum labor required in the rules of their job or contract, and strictly follow time-consuming rules or procedures that may not usually be followed. 

By adhering solely and strictly to their duties as explicitly assigned in writing, workers can effect similar outcomes as in a strike, such as slowdowns and decreased productivity. 

In anticipation of a possible work-to-rule action during the June 2024 contract mediations, the CBSA issued a statement explaining that they will step in to process border clearance in the event of a strike. It is reasonable to expect that they would do the same in the future if faced with a similar dilemma. 

However, shippers and drivers with northbound shipments into Canada should expect longer delays at the border regardless of whether the CBSA does take on clearance facilitation. 

How Will a Labor Strike Affect Freight Shipping Into Canada? 

Without a doubt, a strike at the Canadian border will cause delays to northbound freight shipments.

In order for a truck to enter Canada, a border agent must be physically present to review and scan customs paperwork.

If this process slows — intentionally or otherwise — drivers could face hours-long waits, and shippers could feel an immediate impact on their supply chains. 

While specifics will vary by crossing location, it is safe to assume that wait times will significantly increase at the border if a strike occurs. 

On top of lengthy delays, shippers in time-sensitive industries like pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, automotive parts and manufacturing, produce and retail will experience disruptions across their supply chains. 

If the strike continues for an extended period, slowdowns at the border could affect freight shipping by air, rail and sea due to the interconnected nature of supply chains that utilize multiple modes.

Customs inspections could also become unpredictable during a strike, causing unexpected delays to affected shipments. 

How Long Will Delays Be at the Canadian Border? 

During the brief 2021 labor disruption, drivers reported delays of four to five hours to enter Canada at major land crossings.

If history is any guide, delays of four to up to 10 hours are not out of the question, depending on the duration of the strike.

Transportation companies may consider identifying and utilizing alternative points of entry to mitigate the expected congestion and delays.

While using smaller or less frequently used crossing sites can help shorten wait times, it is unlikely that drivers will be able to avoid delays altogether during this time. 

A sign welcoming traffic into Canada after crossing the border

How Can Shippers Prepare Their Supply Chains for A Border Strike? 

As the buzz around the June 2024 potential strike fizzles out, shippers may feel they can cease trying to insulate their supply chain against the effects of such a disruption.

While it's natural to feel relieved (We certainly do!), we'd caution against throwing your supply chain fortification plans out the window entirely. 

Like we said at the start of this article, the June 2024 mediations are unlikely to be the last time Canadian border agents exercise their right to negotiate a contract and potentially strike. 

It's also not the last time shippers' supply chains will need to be strong and nimble enough to survive unexpected changes.

As such, we recommend adopting a few proactive best practices regarding your Canada-bound shipments. By adhering to these four tips, you can prepare your supply chain for disruptions and facilitate smoother border crossings, regardless of the state of labor negotiations. 

1) Complete Customs Paperwork in Advance

At ATS, the most common delays we encounter at the Canadian border are due to incomplete customs documentation.

The best thing shippers can do when faced with a possible border strike is to complete all necessary paperwork for their shipments before freight reaches the border. 

This includes commercial invoices, packing lists, and any required permits or certifications.

Talk with your transportation provider well in advance about the necessary documents for your specific shipments.

Your proactivity will ensure everything is complete and correct so that your freight can move through customs as easily (and quickly) as possible. 

2) Be Flexible with Scheduling

Whenever a disruptive event occurs, it's wise to be open to changes to your planned shipment schedule.

Work with your transportation provider to develop flexible shipping schedules that can accommodate potential delays with agility. 

Related: From Headlines to Headaches: How to Prepare Your Supply Chain for Disruptive Events

Anticipate variable transit times by building "breathing room" into your schedule whenever possible. This will help cushion your supply chain against the impact of any delays.

Be sure to communicate regularly with consignees and other affected parties in your supply chain to help manage expectations and reduce the impact of any disruptions. 

3) Practice Open Communication

Speaking of communication: Clear, open communication is always important in this industry, but perhaps never more so than when there is a supply chain disruption. 

Maintain open lines of communication with your transportation provider throughout the duration of any labor actions that may occur. 

If you have rush shipments that must get over the border and to their destination on time, your provider should be able to work with you to find a solution. 

Open to alternatives like rerouting your freight to other ports of entry? Make that clear to your transportation provider right away. 

Giving them the go-ahead to pursue creative solutions could be the key to getting your time-sensitive freight over the border on schedule. 

4) Be Patient and Respectful

Finally, a key component of constructive communication is a healthy respect and empathy for the situation of the other parties involved.

While delays at the border are undeniably frustrating, it's important to remember that you, your transportation provider, drivers, and border agents are all working on the same team in pursuit of the same goal: getting your freight into Canada as quickly and painlessly as possible. 

In stressful moments, the choice to practice patience and use respectful language can make all the difference — in fact, it could even make it more likely that you'll get what you need. 

When you strive to work well with your transportation team, it sets you and your shipments up for success. Together, you and your provider can keep your freight moving with minimal impact on your vital supply chain. 

Supply Chain Worries Got You Down?

It's normal to feel anxious when events out of your control affect your business and livelihood. In the case of a strike (or potential strike), waiting on a successful contract agreement can be especially agonizing. 

If/when Canadian border workers strike, shippers will immediately feel the aftermath. Delays will gum up the works of shippers' supply chains. Drivers' livelihoods will be affected by lengthy slowdowns at crossing sites. 

But strikes don't last forever, and there are preventative actions shippers can take to protect their supply chains in the meantime.

By completing necessary paperwork well in advance, being open to flexible scheduling, and communicating openly and respectfully with their transportation providers, shippers can insulate their operations from any major fallout of a Canadian border strike. 

Still worried about how your transportation provider will handle this disruption? It might be time for an audit of their performance.

Check out our free Transportation Provider Scorecard. It's a downloadable tool with an easy rubric for grading your providers' level of service thus far. Use it to help you determine if your providers have what it takes to steer you successfully through unpredictable times like these. 

Tags: International Shipping, International Shipping Documentation, Customs Clearance


Written by ATS

Family-owned since 1955, Anderson Trucking Service (ATS) is a values-driven company offering worldwide transportation solutions.

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