Threat of Changing NAFTA Affects Border Crossing Workers

Scrutiny of NAFTA raises concerns for cross-border commuters

More from Dave Battagello, Windsor Star
Published on: March 22, 2017 | Last Updated: March 22, 2017 8:33 PM EDT

Thousands of Windsor area commuters who travel into Detroit for work should “proceed with caution” as U.S. legislators review immigration policies and reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement, local border experts say.

“On a daily basis I’m asked by those who work there (in Michigan) or applying for jobs about their situation,” said Laurie Tannous, a local lawyer who specializes in immigration issues and is special adviser to the University of Windsor’s Cross-Border Institute. “I’m telling everyone to proceed with caution.

“The landscape we are in today offers no certainty.”

NAFTA since its inception more than 20 years ago spells out specific job titles allowing Canadians to obtain visas and hold jobs in Michigan.

But that list is outdated with no connection to today’s world of technology and other new specialized skills.
It was partially for that reason specialized nurses were being detained and had their visa temporarily revoked last week by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.

“There needs to be an expansion of the descriptions for an engineer or a nurse who has specialized skills,” Tannous said.

“What we are seeing is that (some customs officers) have started saying ‘we are going to enforce the laws that are here.’”

It’s been a shock for Windsor area residents who for years have held full-time employment — often in high-ranking auto sector or health care jobs. For the first time, they are being asked questions by U.S. immigration or customs officials at the border “much different than in the past,” Tannous said.

“What I have been advising everyone to do is make sure they speak with their employers and human resources department,” she said. “They are handling the visas, they have in-house staff or outside counsel handling a lot of this.”

The border crackdown in Detroit on commuters actually started to occur before the Trump administration was in place, said local immigration lawyer Drew Porter.

Over time, many Windsorites have moved into jobs not on the NAFTA list or promoted to positions different from when they were originally admitted — such as an engineer who moved into sales or a front-line health care worker who takes a management position.

Porter said pushback by labour and political leaders in the U.S. under President Donald Trump’s “hire American” campaign is also leading to greater enforcement at the border.

“It’s been over 20 years since NAFTA went into effect so it’s not unreasonable to take a look at what’s working or not,” he said. “Even before the election we were seeing instances where (U.S. Customs) was starting to limit certain work permits.”

There has also been some “mischaracterization” of jobs, which has created some “mistrust,” Porter said.

“(Customs) officers have a difficult job to do,” Porter said. “Some clarity would help everyone, but it would also be foolish to make any stark changes to the detriment of the economies of both countries. If this is done right, we will all benefit.”

Local MP Brian Masse has been among a team of 12 Canadian MPs and Senators who have been in Washington since Monday meeting with U.S. counterparts in Congress and the Senate.

“It’s definitely clear they are going to reopen NAFTA,” Masse said. “It’s a priority for them. Once you do that, it’s a crapshoot how far it goes.”

Since many jobs held by Windsorites who commute are “in a grey zone,” an update is needed, he said.

“Things have changed,” Masse said. “Too many people do not meet the (NAFTA) categories as purely as before. But many of these jobs are those where Americans need and want our labour force or else it creates problems for them.”

Masse is reasonably “comfortable” both the health care sector and auto sector jobs in Michigan held by Windsorites will be protected.

“A lot of this works in our favour because of a skill shortage,” he said. “But it will be our negotiators versus theirs. Whether the (same jobs) will remain open, nobody knows.

“We are telling people to control what you can. Make sure all your information is up to date, relevant and ready for review.”

Scrutiny of NAFTA raises concerns for cross-border commuters

Defeated Windsor Ward 10 candidate Jeff Gaudette fired by Ambassador Bridge Company

WINDSOR, Ont. – Less than a day after he lost the Ward 10 election, former council candidate Jeff Gaudette lost his job.

Jeff Gaudette, who lost his bid for a city council seat Monday woke up Tuesday only to discover he had lost his job with the Ambassador Bridge. Following a meeting with bridge officials Gaudette and his family prepared to head home to plan their future. The family members are Jeffrey, 6, left,, Mya, 11, and wife Patricia. Photograph by: Scott Webster, The Windsor Star

The 45-year-old bridge worker held a news conference on Tuesday to announce that his employer — the Ambassador Bridge company — had just fired him.

“I’ve worked extremely hard for 20 years for the Ambassador Bridge. And this is the thanks that I’ve gotten: A kick in the seat,” Gaudette said. “I’ve been bullied by probably the biggest bully in town.”

Gaudette said he’s sure the bridge company’s treatment of him would be different if Monday night had ended with him on council. “If I’d have won, those guys would be kissing my (butt),” he fumed.

According to Gaudette, the official reason given for his termination was absenteeism. He said the bridge company accused him of missing work for his campaign efforts.

Specifically, Gaudette said the company thinks he was out campaigning during three days he took off in the past month for medical reasons.

Gaudette said he can prove that he was stuck in bed those three days due to his diabetic condition. “I’ve got the doctors’ notes,” he said.

A chief steward for Teamsters Local 879, Gaudette said he’s clashed with the bridge company on other issues — such as health and safety.

He said he believes the real reason for his dismissal was his bringing attention to a “crack” in the bridge’s concrete.

“I think we need to look at the bridge and the safety of it,” Gaudette said.

“I’m not an engineer but it’s a suspension bridge, and the crack is on the Canadian side, while work was being done on the U.S. side.”

Bridge company president Dan Stamper acknowledged that Gaudette raised the issue of a “crack,” but said the matter was investigated by the Ministry of Labour and the union — and determined to be unfounded. “There is no issue,” Stamper said.

Asked for comment on Gaudette’s other statements, Stamper would only answer: “I will not talk about our personnel issues, other than to say that we have policies, and we expect all our employees to live up to those policies.”

“At the end of the day, decisions are made on what’s right and what’s wrong. I’m disenchanted that, rather than go through the process, (Gaudette) would be holding a news conference.”

Meanwhile, Gaudette said he was fired by Stamper personally via speaker phone. “I don’t know if I even want to work for this guy anymore, anyway,” he said.

Rick Parent, a business agent with Teamsters Local 879, said he believes the firing of Gaudette violates procedure.

According to Parent, the disciplinary action against Gaudette at this point should have been a one-day suspension — not immediate termination.

“We will file a grievance and take it from there,” Parent said. “They did not follow the disciplinary procedure under the guidelines of the collective agreement.”

Gaudette brought his family of five to the news conference, including his daughter who has special needs.

He added that he’s never been a puppet for Stamper or bridge owner Matty Moroun. “There’s no buying me out. I’m a man of the uppermost integrity.”

Gaudette said he doesn’t consider what happened on election night a loss because he gained so much from the experience. He suggested a future comeback.

“I thank all of you that voted for me. And all of you that didn’t vote for me — I thank you as well. Because I know in four years you will vote for me.”