Northern Minnesota communities brace for possible Canadian border workers strike

A car drives by a sign that says "USA Canada border."
A car heads into the U.S. from Canada at the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine, Wash., on June 8, 2021.
Elaine Thompson | AP 2021

Northern Minnesota communities are bracing for a possible strike among Canadian border workers just as the busy summer tourism season gets underway.

More than 9,000 Canada Border Services Agency employees had authorized a strike to begin at 3 p.m. Central Time on June 7 if a new contract agreement wasn’t reached.

Late Friday the union representing Canada Border Services Agency workers announced that strike action “is on hold as mediation will continue until Wednesday. Picket lines will not be in place until further notice.”

The workers are represented by the Customs and Immigration Union, which is affiliated with the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Those employees include workers at airports, marine points of entry, and at land entry points, including busy border crossings such as at Grand Portage in northeastern Minnesota and International Falls in the far northcentral part of the state.

About 90 percent of workers represented by the union are deemed essential, according to the Canadian government. That means they must show up for work, even if a strike is authorized.

But those workers could still take actions to substantially slow the flow of traffic across the border, Wall Street Journal reporter Paul Vieira told MPR News this week.

“The union members would basically take their time processing, they will take their time dealing with travelers coming across the border,” Vieira said. “So basically, the cross-border traffic will come to a gridlock.”

In northeastern Minnesota, that could have a large impact on an economy dominated by tourism.

“The Canadian traffic is really impactful,” said Kjersti Vick, marketing manager for Visit Cook County. She said large numbers of Canadians visit the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, take day trips to the Grand Marais area, and stop along the North Shore on their way to Duluth and the Twin Cities.

Border crossings rising

Before the pandemic, about 50,000 people crossed the border at Grand Portage each month during the summer. Those numbers crashed during the pandemic because of travel restrictions.

But visitor numbers have bounced back. Last year more than 40,000 people crossed in August. Visit Cook County has launched marketing campaigns in the Thunder Bay area in Ontario, encouraging Canadian visitors to return.

“And from what we hear from our local businesses, it’s working,” said Cook County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Linda Jurek. “We’ve seen an uptick a lot in the last year of our Canadian visitors coming to Grand Marais to spend the day.”

Crossings have also increased elsewhere along the border. Some 75,000 people crossed last July in International Falls, close to the pre-pandemic peak of about 90,000. In Warroad, 19,000 people crossed last July, compared to about 22,000 before COVID.

In a statement, the Canada Border Services Agency said employees in essential positions “must provide uninterrupted border services and cannot intentionally slow down border processing.”

The agency said it’s reminded union leadership of that obligation. “We expect them to respect this but are also actively monitoring operations to identify incidents of deliberate slowdowns. We are ready to take progressive disciplinary action in situations of illegal job action.”

Visitors can monitor estimated wait times at border crossings here.

Union members have been working without a contract since the previous agreement expired in June, 2022.

They’re asking for wages aligned with other law enforcement agencies in Canada, stronger job security, access to telework, and protections against the agency contracting out with other workers or using automated systems.

The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat said in a statement that “the government is prepared to make concessions, but there needs to be movement on both sides.”