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Canadian trucker protest spreads to second city, threatening U.S. auto industry lifeline

Lengthy blockade could mean layoffs if companies can’t move their products

The Ottawa Police Service said on Feb. 7 they've taken measures to end the disruption from the protests against the coronavirus restrictions and mandates. (Video: Reuters)
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Canadian truckers protesting coronavirus restrictions and vaccine mandates on Tuesday partially severed a key trade artery between the United States and Canada, threatening to further disrupt new car and truck production that already has been hampered by a prolonged shortage of computer chips.

After blocking streets in the capital Ottawa for 10 days, the truckers brought their anti-government blockade to the Ambassador Bridge, which links Windsor, Ontario, with the city of Detroit.

Each day, $300 million worth of car and truck parts, agricultural products, steel and other raw materials flows across the bridge, according to Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association in Toronto.

U.S. manufacturers rely on daily or near-daily shipments to and from their Canadian partners. Just one or two more days of interrupted deliveries could lead to temporary layoffs or plant closures, Volpe said.

“We work in 24-48 hour contingencies. Everybody is thinking about what that means for tomorrow’s production,” he said. “A few dozen people are getting in the way of the American economy.”

America's broken supply chain

The Canadian protest, which began after the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau required truckers to receive the coronavirus vaccine beginning Jan. 15, represents just the latest obstacle for industrial supply chains that have struggled amid the pandemic. New car dealers in the United States have far fewer vehicles in stock than normal, leaving consumers facing high prices and long delays in obtaining their preferred models.

“The inventory of new vehicles is in very short supply, so any disruption to the supply chain is not helping,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst with Cox Automotive. “It’s a tremendous amount of automotive goods that go back and forth across that bridge.”

Canada was the United States’ top trading partner last year, with almost $665 billion in goods exchanged between the two countries, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

For almost 30 years, North American trade agreements have melded vehicle makers in the United States and Canada into a seamless operation. Incomplete vehicles routinely cross the northern border several times before assembly is completed.

As U.S. plants run short of Canadian components, they will react by cutting their own orders to suppliers elsewhere, meaning layoffs could ripple across the industry, Volpe added.

All major carmakers — GM, Ford, Toyota and Honda — have plants in Ontario.

“We are aware of the issue and are managing the situation with our logistics providers to mitigate any potential problems. There are no production impacts to report at this time,” said Dan Flores, a GM spokesman.

As of late Tuesday afternoon, police in Windsor had reopened one lane of U.S.-bound traffic, but were diverting commercial vehicles to the Blue Water Bridge in Sarnia, roughly 60 miles away.

The 1.4-mile long Ambassador Bridge, erected in 1929, has been closed in the past by snow or accidents. The Blue Water Bridge offers an alternative, though it means a longer, less efficient route.

The Windsor Police said in a statement that a large police presence was monitoring the protest along Huron Church Road, the main link to the bridge on the Canadian side of the Detroit River.

“Our focus is on maintaining open communications with organizers of the demonstrations and using a reasoned, tempered approach, including the appropriate use of police discretion to guide our police personnel's responses,” the Windsor Police said.

Amid shortage, new truck drivers train for supply chain's toughest job

The protesters in Ottawa have brought the Canadian capital to a standstill using hundreds of parked trucks. After objecting to the government’s vaccine mandate, they have expanded their campaign to seek the end of all coronavirus restrictions. Tom Marazzo, a spokesman for the group behind the original convoy, reiterated Tuesday that the protesters want to overthrow the government of Trudeau, according to the Associated Press.

The protesters have infuriated residents of Ottawa by blocking traffic, constantly sounding their air horns, harassing people who wear masks and displaying the Confederate flag and swastika.

François Laporte, the president of Teamsters Canada, the union representing 55,000 drivers, disavowed the protest, saying it did not represent the concerns of his members. In a statement, Laporte said 90 percent of the union’s long-haul drivers had been vaccinated.

“The so-called ‘freedom convoy’ and the despicable display of hate lead by the political Right and shamefully encouraged by elected conservative politicians does not reflect the values of Teamsters Canada, nor the vast majority of our members, and in fact has served to delegitimize the real concerns of most truck drivers today,” Laporte said.