'Ticked off' border services officers hold march in Cornwall

CBSA employees have been without a contract for more than three years.

Border services officers and union officials during a mid-day demonstration in Cornwall on Wednesday, July 28, 2021.

CORNWALL — About 25 demonstrators, most of them border services officers in Cornwall, held a noon-hour march on Wednesday.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the Customs and Immigration Union (CIU) demonstrated in the area of Water Street and Brookdale Avenue in Cornwall — and at other locations across the country — to call upon the employer, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and Treasury Board, to return to the bargaining table after members overwhelmingly recently voted to strike.

With PSAC’s Alex Silas operating the bullhorn, demonstrators shouted they wanted respect — now.

“Shut it down! Shut it down!” they chanted after Silas asked what they’ll do next.

CBSA employees have been without a contract for more than three years, and the union says they are seeking better protections against a toxic workplace culture at CBSA, and greater parity with other law-enforcement agencies across Canada. The union declared an impasse and applied for a Public Interest Commission ruling after the CBSA and Treasury Board were unwilling to address these concerns. The positive result of the strike vote was announced on Tuesday.

Mark Weber, the national president of the CIU, attended the Cornwall march, and during it said workers have been without a contract for long periods in the past, but that these are extraordinary times, and that the CBSA is a “problematic place to work … considering what we’ve been living through (during the pandemic), we expected more than what we got. We kept the economy going, and there’s been a (huge workload) screening every traveller.”

Kim Sweeney, the CIU Eastern Ontario branch president, said that because of the fairly unique location of the Cornwall Port of Entry, “we’ve been open and busy … a majority of the travel is domestic, through Cornwall Island.

“There’ve been staff shortages here, and it’s been a struggle during COVID. But we came to work every day.”

The Cornwall port of entry processes both international travellers who are coming into Canada from New York state, as well as domestic travellers coming into the city from Kawehno:ke (Cornwall Island). Akwesasronon have treaty rights that allowed them to continue to cross the border throughout the pandemic.

On the possibility of more demonstrations, Weber said, “People are ticked off, (and) it depends on where things go, right? If we’re back at the negotiation table tomorrow, (demonstrations would likely be halted).”

Demonstrators held signs and placards that read We Deserve a Fair Deal, and I’m on Strike Alert. Silas shouted, “Who has the power? We have the power! What kind of power? Union power!”

Possible strike action could affect the country’s reopening plans. The two unions represent over 8,500 CBSA employees, and strike action could occur as soon as Aug. 6, not long before Canada reopens the border to fully vaccinated U.S. residents.

Border workers are deemed essential, but the union said strike action could slow down commercial traffic at the border and ports of entry, hit international mail and parcel deliveries from Canada Post and other major shipping companies, and disrupt the collection of duties and taxes on goods entering Canada. Their essential services agreement allows 2,600 members to take full strike action, while essential workers can take work-to-rule actions in the workplace.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this week addressed the situation with media and said it has been a difficult year for border guards because, while at most locations they have had far fewer crossings to process, they’ve been tasked with carrying out more stringent checks on travellers.

“We will be working very closely with the CBSA union to make sure that we are negotiating, getting to the bargaining table, trying to figure out a path forward,” Trudeau said.

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