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Automakers face even more supply chain pain as Canadian protesters block a key bridge

Protesters with trucks and other vehicles adorned in signs and Canadian flags gather near Ambassador Bridge on February 9 in Windsor, Canada. The bridge is the busiest land border crossing in North America in terms of trade volume.
Matthew Hatcher
/
Getty Images
Protesters with trucks and other vehicles adorned in signs and Canadian flags gather near Ambassador Bridge on February 9 in Windsor, Canada. The bridge is the busiest land border crossing in North America in terms of trade volume.

The auto industry was already struggling to keep factory lines humming thanks to shortages of semiconductors and other parts. And now, big protests in Canada over health mandates are threatening to cause even more pain to production lines.

Carmakers have had to cancel more shifts as the Canadian protests halt traffic on Ambassador Bridge, a vital transport line. The bridge, which connects Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, is the busiest land border crossing in North America in terms of trade volume.

General Motors has canceled two shifts at Lansing Delta Township assembly in Michigan due to parts shortages, while Ford is running its plants in the Canadian cities of Windsor and Oakville at "reduced capacity."

Stellantis, the parent company of Chrysler, Ram and Jeep, says it has reduced shifts at plants on both sides of the border.

Toyota says it expects "disruptions throughout the week" at its Canadian plants, which have been affected by the bridge blockade. At this point, no jobs will be affected, a spokesman says.

The company notes that other supply chain issues, severe weather and "COVID related challenges" are also hampering production across North America.

Canadian auto wokers start to get impacted too.

For nearly two weeks, protesters in trucks and other vehicles have blocked the streets of Canada's capital city to protest pandemic-related public health measures and voice other grievances against the Canadian government.

Then the "Freedom Convoy" spread to other cities, including Windsor, across the border from Detroit. The blockade of the bridge began Monday.

Currently, traffic is flowing from Canada into the U.S., but trucks can't travel the bridge from Detroit into Canada. As a result, Canadian plants are feeling a more acute impact from the blockade.

A line of trucks waits for the road to the Ambassador Bridge border crossing in Windsor, Ontario, to reopen February 8  after protesters blocked the road Monday.
Geoff Robins / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A line of trucks waits for the road to the Ambassador Bridge border crossing in Windsor, Ontario, to reopen February 8 after protesters blocked the road Monday.

Shane Wark, the assistant to the national president of Unifor (the union representing many Canadian auto workers), described the situation as "fluid and changing by the hour" and said at the moment, there are short-term layoffs affecting some members.

"These blockades are creating added hardship on Unifor members and their families in the auto sector, following two years of extraordinary production and supply chain disruptions, and must come to an end immediately," he said.

Automakers fear prolonged protests in Canada

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the impact on workers is "minimal" at this time, a spokesman for the United Auto Workers told NPR.

But automakers warn that a prolonged bridge shutdown could have broader consequences. The North American auto industry relies on a complex web of suppliers, and some parts travel back and forth across borders multiple times before being installed in a vehicle.

"The situation at the Ambassador Bridge, combined with an already fragile supply chain, will bring further hardship to people and industries still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic," said Jodi Tinson, a spokeswoman for Stellantis. "We hope a resolution can be reached soon so our plants and our employees can return to normal operations."

A Ford spokeswoman said the bridge blockade "hurts customers, auto workers, suppliers, communities and companies on both sides of the border that are already two years into parts shortages resulting from the global semiconductor issue, COVID and more," and also called for a quick resolution.

Brian Kingston, CEO of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers' Association, was more blunt.

"The time has come for our governments at all levels to enforce their laws, end the blockades and restore cross-border trade," he said in a statement.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.