WASHINGTON — Long lines of semi-trailer trucks snaked away from the Canada-U.S. frontier Friday as a work-to-rule campaign by border agents slowed traffic to a crawl and marathon negotiations stretched through the day, with plans to ease COVID-19 restrictions now just a weekend away.
Commercial wait times for truckers at the Pacific Bridge in Surrey, B.C., reached three hours and 45 minutes as the afternoon wore on, while regular travellers looking to get into Saskatchewan faced delays of up to two and a half hours at the North Dakota entry point in the town of Portal.
At the Blue Water Bridge in Sarnia, Ont., trucks were being held up for more than two hours, much as they were at the Peace Bridge between Fort Erie, Ont., and the city of Buffalo. Non-commercial vehicles faced only marginal delays at both.
Guards who work for the Canada Border Services Agency spent the day following procedures to the letter, part of a job action that began early Friday amid contract talks between the federal government and the Public Service Alliance of Canada's Customs and Immigration Union.
"We ask travellers to be patient," said Denis Vinette, vice-president of the agency's travellers branch.
"Our officers are administering a very different border than the one that we had (before) some of these restrictions, and at the same time they are still going through a legal bargaining process, which we all hope will conclude at some point."
Talks between CBSA, the federal government and the union, which represents some 9,000 agency employees, continued through Thursday night, well past the union's initial 6 a.m. deadline and throughout the day Friday, which passed without news.
The union's planned 10 a.m. news conference was initially postponed, then cancelled entirely as the talks continued.
"Our bargaining team has continued to bargain through the night and all of (Friday) to try to reach a deal, but we don't have a firm timeline for when we may have more information to share," spokesman Michael Aubry said in an email.
Work-to-rule can entail a wide range of actions that slow down operations, like refusing to work overtime, asking each traveller or trucker every single question in the manual, and demanding to see documentation for purchases made while outside of the country.
The campaign comes just days before Canada plans to begin easing its COVID-19 restrictions at the border; as of midnight Sunday night, fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents will be allowed back into the country for the first time since March 2020.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, whose members are still reeling from the lingering economic impact of the pandemic, urged the two sides to come to an agreement soon.
"A strike at the border would have a negative impact on the movement of people and goods at a time when many businesses are already dealing with major supply chain challenges, growing labour shortages and reduced sales," said national affairs vice-president Corinne Pohlmann.
"They cannot afford to lose any more business because of delays at the border, and Canada’s economic recovery cannot take another setback."
Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters also issued a similar plea.
"We have seen the damage caused by disruptions to our rail and port systems over the past year," said president and CEO Dennis Darby. "A country-wide slowdown at the border will inflict more damage and hinder Canada's economic recovery."
Vinette said the agency is fully prepared for the possibility of the job action continuing into Monday, and warned that further delays would be likely if that happened.
"We do expect to see some delays as part of this labour action," he said. "We're just asking folks to be patient."
The union, which has been without a long-term contract for CBSA employees since 2018, served notice Tuesday of its planned work-to-rule campaign. Some 90 per cent of front-line border workers are deemed essential, a designation that prevents them from walking off the job.
The Treasury Board of Canada, which oversees government spending and the management of public-sector employees, acknowledged Friday that mediated talks were still ongoing.
"The government is still at the table and will not walk away," it said in a statement.
The union had said members would begin a "sweeping" series of actions at Canadian airports, land borders, commercial shipping ports, postal facilities and headquarters locations if a contract hadn't been reached by early Friday morning.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 6, 2021.
— With files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter in Toronto
James McCarten, The Canadian Press