OTTAWA – Canada’s federal border officers have put strike plans on hold to continue mediation in a dispute where their union is trying to expand what can be negotiated at the bargaining table.  

The union has pinned two of its key contract demands on issues that are currently not legally allowed to be matters for labour negotiations.   

Remote work and pension reforms, such as the border guards’ demand to retire with benefits after 25 years, are outside the scope of bargaining for federal workers. Under the law, federal unions can’t bargain pensions because it requires legislative change. Location of work is a protected management right.   

Treasury Board President Anita Anand can promise to propose amendments to existing pension legislation that would allow border guards to retire after 25 years of service. Such an agreement, however, would be separate from negotiations.  

It’s a twist that complicates these talks and signals the distance at the negotiating table between the government and the Public Service Alliance of Canada and its component union, the Customs and Immigration Union.   

Border guard clout 

The 9,000 border officers carry a lot of clout because the laws they enforce determine who and what enters the country. Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said the government is “very seized” on possible economic impact of a strike at the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).  

The border officers are also among PSAC’s most militant workers. About 90 per cent are essential workers and cannot strike, but they can launch an effective work-to-rule campaign, which can quickly slow travel, paralyze commercial border traffic and hit the economy.  

The union slowed down border operations in 2021 by working to rule. But a Treasury Board statement published June 5 said work-to-rule is an illegal job action for essential workers and they will be disciplined this time. 

Contract talks began in June 2022 but hit an impasse last September. The parties resumed negotiations this week with the help of a mediator, but PSAC warned strike action would begin if its demands weren’t met by 4 p.m. Friday. After the deadline passed, PSAC agreed to continue mediation until Wednesday.   

The union’s top priorities are pension reform, wage parity with the RCMP, the right to telework and better protections against technological change, harassment, and their discipline system. 

The Public Interest Commission (PIC) created to find common ground between the parties found the big obstacle is agreement on which jobs to use as a benchmark for comparison. All the sticking points flow from that disagreement. 

The line between a guard and a police officer 

The border guards say the CBSA is the second-largest law enforcement agency in Canada. Their work is like that of the RCMP and that their pay and benefits should be in line with them. They are seeking increases of about 12 per cent a year over four years.  

The government strongly disagrees. 

Treasury Board argues border guards are not like police officers. They have different training, skills, effort, responsibility, working conditions. Their powers as peace officers are limited to when they are on duty at a customs office. Police enforce the entire Criminal Code and are peace officers, whether on duty or not. It also notes border officers have enjoyed bigger wage increases than other public servants. Since 2010, they received increases of more than 40 per cent compared to an average public service increase of 25 per cent.  

The PIC report made no recommendation, acknowledging there are similarities to RCMP work but also significant differences. It concluded: “To be sure, we do not anticipate the parties reaching agreement on this contentious issue.”   

The biggest issue is pensions  

The union has been pushing for what it calls “25 and out” as part of a drive for parity with the RCMP. The RCMP and federal corrections officers can retire after 25 years. The reform would set a precedent with other federal workers, such as firefighters, who also want full pensions after 25 years.   

Pension plans are negotiable in the private sector, but not in the federal sector. It would require amendments to the Public Service Superannuation Act and the Income Tax Act, as well as changes to the regulations.  

Union leaders feel they were promised movement on pensions in the last round of bargaining. Mona Fortier, then-president of the Treasury Board, promised to look at the issue and the technical work needed to make the change. It was referred to the public service pension advisory committee which presented Anand with a confidential report and recommendation last December.  

NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice has pressed Anand on the report and the “radio silence” on the issue since she received it last December.   

So far, Anand has said the government is willing to make concessions and “the best deals are made at the table.”  

The union argues that the work of border officers is dangerous and physically demanding, and after years on the job, many end up suffering illnesses or injuries that leave them unable to meet the standards for carrying a firearm, a requirement for frontline jobs.   

The union argues the retirement benefits they are seeking are affordable because the economy is recovering and the pension plan is racking up a surplus.  

The average age of border guards is 42.9 years old. There are currently about 1,110 who have put in 25 years of service or more.  

Bargaining is all about trade-offs. A win on pensions could certainly be a game changer and some say it would be enough for the union to back off on wage demands. One union member said “if we got pensions, there could be a deal immediately.”  

The public service preoccupation with remote work 

Remote work is a big issue that is preoccupying many office workers, especially in the National Capital Region, since Treasury Board ordered them back to the office three days a week by Sept 9. Executives must go to the office four times a week. 

PSAC led 155,000 workers on an historic strike last year. Chief among its demands was the right to remote work or telework. Location of work, however, is a management right. Treasury Board didn’t surrender it during last year’s strike and it is unlikely to budge this time.  

Only about 2,000 of 9,000 border officers have jobs that allow them to work at home. But PSAC is taking advantage of these talks to try and move the needle on remote work for all union members.  

At its recent convention, PSAC delegates approved a $1-million campaign to fight the three-days-in-the office order and get it reversed.  

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Kathryn May is a reporter and the Accenture fellow on the Future of the Public Service, providing coverage and analysis of the complex issues facing Canada’s federal public service for Policy Options. She has spent 25 years covering the public service – the country’s largest workforce – and has also covered parliamentary affairs and politics for The Ottawa Citizen, Postmedia Network Inc. and iPolitics. She is also the winner of a National Newspaper Award and a Canadian Online Publishing Award. Follow Kathryn on Twitter: @kathryn_may.

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