Canadian border workers reach deal, but delays remain in Detroit, Port Huron

Carol Thompson Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit Unionized Canadian border agency workers reached a tentative deal late Friday aimed to end a "work-to-rule" action that effectively slowed the passage of traffic across the border.

But lengthy delays remained for commercial traffic at major U.S.-Canada border-crossings to start the weekend, including in Detroit and Port Huron.

Late Friday, "after an intense final round of negotiations that lasted more than 36 hours," the Public Service Alliance of Canada and Customs and Immigration Union said it had reached a tentative agreement with the Canada Border Services Agency. 

“We are relieved that CBSA and the government finally stepped up to address the most important issues for our members to avoid a prolonged labour dispute,” said Chris Aylward, PSAC national president.

The agreement meant an immediate end to the work-to-rule action "and ensures the flow of border traffic will return to normal as the government prepares to welcome fully vaccinated U.S. travelers on Monday," the group said. 

“CBSA employees have been on the front lines of the pandemic since day one, protecting our borders and keeping Canadians safe. But they weren’t receiving the support they needed from the government,” said Mark Weber, CIU national president. “Finally — after three years of negotiations — we’ve resolved longstanding issues that will go a long way towards making CBSA a better, safer place to work for our members.” 

The work slowdown Friday was at all Canadian airports, border crossings, commercial shipping ports and postal facilities.

Trucks had spent hours crawling across the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit and Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron.  Wait times also were two hours at the border bridge in Buffalo, the Buffalo News reported, and the Canadian government's wait time monitor indicated delays clocked more than five hours at a port in Washington state.

By Friday evening, trucks were waiting three hours to cross the Blue Water Bridge, according to the wait time system. At times, vehicles were backed up for miles in stop-and-go traffic as far west and south as Interstate 94, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation traffic map.

Commercial truck drivers waited roughly two hours to cross the Ambassador Bridge into Windsor on Friday evening, according to a Canadian border wait time system. Late Friday, the time was listed as three hours.

There was no delay for regular traffic flow, although the border is not open yet for most travelers.

At the Detroit and Windsor tunnel, the wait was three and a half hours for commercial and civilian traffic.

The work slowdown was intended to exert pressure on Canadian officials to negotiate with worker unions in a contract dispute that has lasted years, experts said. The action came ahead of the Canadian government's plans to reopen the border to fully vaccinated U.S. travelers on Monday following a 17-month COVID-induced closure.

Workers had been without a contract for three years and negotiations had stalled.

The border slowdown by the unionized workers and Canada Border Services Agency risked undercutting any economic boost Canadian border economies, such as Windsor and Sarnia, could reap from renewed tourism by vaccinated Americans. It also threatened to deepen supply chain woes already weighing on auto industry production.

Auto plants don't hold much inventory on-site, so they are highly dependent on suppliers that traverse the Ambassador in Detroit and Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, said Glenn Stevens, Detroit Regional Chamber executive director for MICHauto.

"They're taking (supplies) just in time to build vehicles," Stevens said. "Any disruption, literally hours and certainly days, is something that would certainly disrupt the ability to produce vehicles."

Traffic is backed up on the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, Friday, August 6, 2021.
A view from the Bagley and 20th street of backups on the Ambassador Bridge due to a work slowdown by Canadian border agents on August 6, 2021.

A work-to-rule action is also known as a "work slowdown," said Michelle Kaminski, a Michigan State University associate professor of human resources and labor relations. Workers take the time to follow every rule in the book instead of using their judgment to let vehicles cross more freely.

Three years is an unusually long time to go without a contract, she said, particularly in the public sector that is usually less hostile to worker groups.

"It's been a long time," Kaminski said. "The strategic choice is, 'OK, we have to step up the pressure on management because what we've been doing isn't getting us an agreement.

"The greatest source of power that workers have is to withhold their labor."

Although the delays affect businesses, economies and drivers on both sides of the border, Kaminski said it is reasonable for essential workers to advocate for good working conditions and beneficial for the public to have border services employees who are qualified and satisfied on the job.

"I know that it causes significant inconvenience for the public and significant disruption, and that's part of the way in which it puts pressure on management," she said. "The public is not the target. The target is to get management to come to an agreement."

Earlier Friday, Ambassador Bridge General Manager Randy Spader said bridge owners were monitoring the labor dispute and working closely with the Canadian Border Services Agency to minimize delays.

The private Ambassador Bridge is owned by the Moroun family, which has sought to stop the construction of a second publicly owned span known as the Gordie Howe bridge between Detroit and Windsor. The family also owns an international trucking and logistics company, Central Transport International.

Businesses remain concerned. Michigan's signature auto industry depends on the Blue Water and Ambassador bridges to move "an incredible amount of components back and forth every day," the Detroit chamber's Stevens said.

"Any day that's not able to happen is a difficult day," he said. "Given all the other issues the industry has been going through, like the chip shortage, like the weather issues last month and this overarching pandemic situation, it can be a very, very impactful situation."

Automotive companies said they were  weathering Friday's delays. 

"We are working with our associations, suppliers and other partners to ensure everyone remains focused on the importance of continued free movement of goods across the border," General Motors Co. spokesman David Barnas said.

Stellantis spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said tit has not impacted production. 

Lisa Rubino, president of Horizon Freight Systems in Detroit, said Friday she hadn't been notified about what kind of delays, if any, her drivers were experiencing at the Ambassador Bridge. The company transports ocean import and export containers.

Rubino said she has two truck drivers who travel across the bridge once or twice a week.

"We haven’t experienced a delay in detention time waiting," she said. "With this new development? Hmm, could get hairy crossing over."

Staff Writers Breana Noble, Kalea Hall, Beth LeBlanc and Candice Williams contributed.