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Canadian trucker blockade at Ambassador Bridge disrupts auto production, risking layoffs

The Detroit News
Breana Noble, Hayley Harding and Riley Beggin, Reporters
February 09, 2022

Detroit — A blockade of the Ambassador Bridge by Canadian truckers opposing COVID-19 vaccination mandates in their country already is resulting in manufacturing disruptions that experts say could worsen and result in layoffs if the traffic delays between Michigan and Ontario continue.

More than a quarter of the goods traded between the United States and Canada move across the privately owned bridge, the busiest border crossing between the two nations. It’s a particularly crucial passageway between Detroit and Windsor for automakers and their suppliers already navigating pandemic-induced supply-chain issues.

“A day or two of delay is costly and problematic, but the situation worsens precipitously each day transit is slowed or halted,” said John Walsh, CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association, in a statement. “We are very concerned — the worldwide supply chain is already laboring after the pandemic and workforce shortages. Continued issues at the border will result in temporary shutdowns and layoffs.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday said President Joe Biden “is focused on this and we are working very closely” with the Homeland Security Department and Canadian government to reroute commerce and alleviate the situation.

But the grassroots nature of the Freedom Convoy’s illegal blockade can make it difficult for authorities to negotiate a resolution, Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said. That’s especially true as demands broaden from removing mandates on truckers to removing mandates in general and other protocols such as testing, quarantines and masks that may be governed by local municipalities.

“Everyone understands what is at stake when this border crossing is closed,”Dilkens said during a Wednesday afternoon news conference. “Almost a full third of international trade between the U.S. and Canada crosses at the Ambassador Bridge.If it’s closed for an hour, it’s noticed by the auto sector immediately, greenhouse sector, and many others. If it’s closed for days, people start demanding action. We hear you. We’re not going to let this happen for a prolonged period of time.”

Pausing Production

Automakers said they were working with their carriers to mitigate disruptions, but parts shortages are pausing production. Ford Motor Co., already idling a significant portion of its North American footprint because of a microchip shortage, halted production on Wednesday at its engine plant in Windsor and was running its Ford Edge and Lincoln Nautilus SUV plant in Oakville, Ontario, on a reduced schedule.Engine inventory on hand still was being sent to U.S. plants.

General Motors Co. on Wednesday canceled the second shift at its Lansing Delta Township Assembly Plant where it builds the Buick Enclave and Chevrolet Traverse SUVs, saying in a statement it is “working closely with our logistics providers to mitigate any potential impacts to our production and operations.”

First and second shifts at Stellantis NV’s Windsor Assembly Plant, which makes theChrysler Pacifica minivan and is facing a 1,800-person layoff in April, were cut short on Tuesday because of parts shortages. The plant, however, was able to resume operation on Wednesday morning. The first shift at Brampton Assembly Plant in Ontario, home of the Dodge muscle cars and Chrysler 300 sedan, was interrupted, though. Second shift was running as usual.

Traffic from the U.S. to Canada via the Ambassador Bridge remained blockedWednesday after the bridge was completely closed on Monday due to Canadian truck drivers blocking the road in Windsor. The Ambassador Bridge reopened to some U.S.-bound traffic early Tuesday morning and fully opened Tuesday afternoon with occasional restrictions on Wednesday.

“We intend to follow the science and are working closely with (Canadian chief public health officer) Dr. (Theresa) Tam and other public health officials to ensure we get through this pandemic as best we can,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the Canadian Parliament on Wednesday, “and that has been through vaccinations.”

A group of more than 70 Canadian and U.S. business associations in a joint statement called the actions by the truckers an “attack on the well-being of our citizens and the businesses that employ them.”

The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel isn’t tall enough for large trucks, so many drivers opted for the Blue Water Bridge connecting Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario, which experienced backups as long as 7 miles because of the heavy traffic. Protests were scheduled on Wednesday in Sarnia, as well.

Penske Logistics Inc., which employs 11,000 truckers in North America, was even routing some vehicles to border crossings at Buffalo and Niagara, New York, said spokesperson Alen Beljin.

We’re kind of at the whim of others

At a minimum, rerouting costs 100 miles in time and fuel, said Bobby Harris, CEO of BlueGrace Logistics based in Florida that works with more than 5,000 companies. The company doesn’t see relief from Canada as an imminent solution and is focused on being agile for customers: “We’re kind of at the whim of others,” Harris said.

‘In a bad mood’

Trucker Joe Filbert, 43, who lives Downriver, was stuck on Sunday in Canada for seven hours while trying to deliver paint for automobiles — after which he had to turn around and drop his load because U.S. Transportation Department rules limit truckers to 11 hours of driving for a 14-hour shift per day.

“It’s not so bad if you’re in a sleeper (truck),” he said, “because they’re basically apartments. New York-sized, but still. If you’re like me in a smaller one, you’re in for a bad time, and everyone just ends up in a bad mood.”

His company has empty trailers on the U.S. side unable to cross to reload: “If these empty trailers can’t get over,” Filbert said, “they’re going to have to shut down the plant in Canada, and they’re looking at layoffs. I’d probably get laid off, too.”

Archie White, who’s been a trucker for 20 years, didn’t need to cross the border on Wednesday, but he was picking up loads in Port Huron. He spent an extra hour taking all sorts of “crazy side roads” to get his cargo.

“Our government and the Canadian government need to stop trying to mandate things,” he said. “I support the protesters.”

But he does have sympathy for the stuck truckers: “Some get paid based on a percentage of their load, and some get paid based on miles,” White said. “If you’re sitting there and your wheels aren’t turning, you’re not getting paid.”

The Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority estimates 7,000 trucks cross the corridor between the two cities every day, totaling roughly 2.5 million trucks each year. The authority says that represents more than $100 billion in bilateral trade every year.

“Ensuring that essential consumer goods reach Canadian households as efficiently as possible, and that food, medicine and other critical supplies are accessible to all who need them, is of the utmost priority for the Government of Canada,” a Canadian embassy spokesperson said in a statement. “The majority of truckers have made the right choice and are vaccinated. They are essential to keeping our supply chains moving — and they are doing so each and every day.

“Vaccination, used in combination with preventative public health measures, is the most effective tool to reduce the risk of COVID-19 for Canadians, and to protect public health.”

The blockade follows rallies over opposition to COVID-19 vaccine mandates in cities across Canada in a show of solidarity with a demonstration in Ottawa that has gone on for more than a week and paralyzed the Canadian capital’s business district.

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