WINDSOR, Canada — Air traffic was disrupted, assembly lines were halted and thousands of rail cars filled with grain backed up across the Canadian prairie Tuesday in the second day of a national strike by federal employees protesting the Canadian government's plan to freeze their wages.
There was no immediate end in sight to the face-off between about 70,000 striking members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the Progressive Conservative government, which is determined to cut spending. The job action, which began Monday, is Canada's first general strike by federal workers.
Both sides claimed the upper hand in the dispute, whose effects were felt all along the American border in cities such as Detroit, Buffalo, N.Y., and Blaine, Wash., where traffic was snarled. But government leaders insisted that all essential services were running normally and that only about 60% of eligible strikers stayed off the job.
"We are maintaining essential services, and we will maintain as many other services as we can in the circumstances," said Jean-Guy Fleury, an official of the Treasury Board of Canada.
The Toronto airport, where striking air traffic controllers succeeded in grounding 90 flights and more than 6,000 passengers on Monday, lost only half that many flights on Tuesday, according to airport general manager Chern Heed.
The Toronto air cancellations were described as the chief cause of delays at airports across Canada. The nation's two biggest airlines said that at least 15,000 travelers were stranded on the first day of the strike.
The improvement Tuesday at Toronto trickled down to such regional airlines as Air Ontario, whose Windsor sales manager, Harry Fase, said that only one of 10 flights had to be canceled Tuesday, compared with four of 10 on Monday.
But union leaders boasted of wide-ranging effects, including temporary production shutdowns in Canada's auto industry, as shipments of U.S. parts to assembly plants in Ontario were delayed at border crossings.
Complaining that customs agents "are taking twice as long to move things through," a spokesman at Chrysler Corp. said the firm had to close a van assembly plant in Windsor for an hour Tuesday when a shipment of axles from Detroit was held up at the border crossing. Officials at General Motors Corp. reported brief shutdowns throughout the day at a car assembly in Oshawa, Ontario, for the same reason.
"There are beginning to be serious economic ramifications" because of the strike, said Jim Chorostecki, a Toronto-based union leader. "The auto industry is the mainstay of the economic and industrial complex in Canada, as well as the United States, and it's starting to be affected."
On the U.S. border, Canadian customs inspectors--who are union members but are considered essential public employees and forbidden to strike--expressed their sympathy with the nationwide job action by slowing their work. That triggered huge traffic jams that backed up onto freeways near border crossings in Washington, Michigan, New York and other states.
In downtown Detroit, dozens of big-rig trucks trying to pass through an old two-lane tunnel to Windsor, a city of 194,000, were backed up about a mile through city streets and onto Interstate Highway 75. On the American approach to the Ambassador Bridge between the two cities, hundreds more trucks clogged another section of freeway.
Complaining that he had lost $10,000 a year to inflation over the last six years, one customs agent on the bridge, who declined to give his name, said truckers and other motorists had been voicing support for the strike. "We have unpopular jobs, but people hate the government even worse," he said. "They sympathize with us because we're blue-collar."
At two Washington border crossings near Blaine, delays of up to an hour were experienced on the American side, said Ken Macpherson, a Canadian customs supervisor for the Vancouver region. He added that sympathetic truckers sometimes contributed to the slowdowns. "All it takes is one trucker to drop a load and you've got a considerable problem."
The cause of the Canadian worker unrest was the government's three-year contract offer freezing wages in the first year and providing raises of just 3% in each of the next two years.
About 110,000 union members--almost half the entire federal work force--are eligible to strike. They include clerks, weather forecasters, dock hands, grain inspectors and a range of other workers. Another 46,000 members of the union are not allowed to strike because of the importance of their jobs. Workers in this category include airport firefighters, meat inspectors, prison guards, customs officers and those who process unemployment insurance and other benefit checks.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, whose limousine in London, Ontario, was pelted with tomatoes by pickets who appeared at government buildings across the country Tuesday, defended the government's position. He accused union leaders of believing in "big government spending and uncontrolled debt. This country is full of special interests, but I'm here to defend the interests of the country," the Associated Press quoted him as saying.
Treasury Board official Fleury, Reuters news service reported, said the strike was saving the government $5.7 million to $6.1 million a day in wages to the striking workers.
But among the hardest hit by the strike were Canadian grain farmers, who are in the middle of harvest. Striking inspectors and other government workers at ports that handle grain exports have shut down terminals.