The anti-vaccination trucker protest that has paralyzed Canada’s capital, Ottawa, has spilled over the Michigan border and threatens to wreak havoc on an auto industry already struggling to cope with what industry experts described as a “fragile supply chain”.
Since Monday, protesters have been installing blockades on the two bridges connecting Ontario and Michigan. The Blue Water and Ambassador Bridges service thousands of trucks daily, many of which transport auto parts and finished vehicles.
Traffic on the Ambassador Bridge has come to a virtual standstill. Only a small number of trucks moved from Canada to Michigan on Wednesday. The situation at the Blue Water Bridge connecting Sarnia, Ontario to Port Huron, Michigan is not much better, with reported delays of at least 4.5 hours.
On Wednesday, the Chrysler Pacifica minivan plant became the first direct victim. Officials of the world’s largest automaker Stellantis have temporarily halted production at the plant because it does not have enough parts. Ford on Wednesday became the second automaker to take action to address parts shortages.
“While we continue to ship our current inventory of engines to support our US factories, we are operating our factories on a reduced schedule today in Oakville. [Ontario] and our Windsor engine plant is down,” Ford said in a statement.
General Motors, Detroit’s largest automaker, confirmed late Wednesday that it had temporarily cut second shifts at a plant in Lansing, Michigan, producing SUVs for the Buick, Chevrolet and GMC brands.
It could be a few hours before other automakers, domestic and foreign, have to take action at assembly and parts plants within hours of the two bridge crossings.
“Blockages at Canada’s borders threaten fragile supply chains already under strain due to pandemic-related shortages and backlogs,” Brian Kingston, CEO of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association, said in a statement.
“We call for cooperation from all levels of government to resolve this situation and end these lockdowns immediately.”
Truckers have been blocking traffic in Ottawa since last month, protesting mask and vaccination mandates. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has denounced the protests this week, insisting that protesters are “trying to block our economy, our democracy and the daily lives of our fellow citizens”.
“It’s got to stop,” Trudeau said. But, instead, the protest spread and on Monday a vanguard group began blocking access to the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Windsor, Ont., to Detroit.
Within hours, authorities on both sides of the border declared the road closed. This quickly created a logistical nightmare. The span, which opened in November 1929, now serves about 2.5 million trucks a year, according to the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority. It handles approximately $100 billion in cross-border shipments of auto parts and fully assembled vehicles. The Ambassador Bridge alone accounts for approximately 20% of all Canada-US trade.
Officials on the Windsor side of the bridge struggled to open access to the Ambassador Bridge and had only partial success Wednesday morning, with a small flow of traffic heading into Michigan from the Canadian side.
Authorities have begun redirecting traffic to two other routes connecting Michigan and Ontario. Passenger traffic between Windsor and Ontario has been heavier than normal, but is moving through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. But the road under the Detroit River cannot accommodate large trucks. They must have headed north to the Blue Water Bridge.
Protesters began moving to attach this road to the Canadian side on Tuesday. Combined with the additional traffic load diverted from the Ambassador Bridge, reports from border authorities indicate that it takes at least four hours for trucks to cross the two spans connecting Sarnia, Ontario, and Port Huron, Michigan. This is in addition to the extra travel time to and from the Blue Water Bridge.
The industry has been struggling since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and the three-month production shutdown that was ordered in the spring of 2020. Since then, manufacturers have faced not only labor issues , but also to a continued shortage of semiconductor chips. . This week, Ford was forced to suspend or reduce production at eight North American assembly plants due to a lack of chips. A number of these plants are within an hour of the Ambassador Bridge and also rely on certain Canadian-made parts.
“Basically, if there’s a closure of transportation lanes, the auto industry comes to a screeching halt in about two days,” Robert Wildeboer, executive chairman of parts supplier Martinrea International, told BNN Bloomberg Television on Tuesday.
Consumers would quickly feel the effects. They’ve already struggled to buy the vehicles they want, said Tyson Jominy, principal analyst at JD Power. The research firm estimated that there were barely 1 million vehicles on US dealer lots in January. Normally there are over 3 million at this time of year.
Shortages were a factor in a sharp rise in the cost of a new car, which averaged $45,000 to $47,000 in December, according to JD Power, auto sales and review site Edmunds and other tracking services.