Trucker Blockade Quickly Forcing Auto Plant Closures

This story was significantly updated Thursday at 5:40 p.m.

The wait time for large trucks to cross the Peace Bridge from Canada into the U.S. is now 101 minutes — and climbing, according to the bridge authority’s website.

With a second key assembly plant now hit by shortages, General Motors is no longer waiting for government officials in Canada or the U.S. eliminate the delays at two critical border crossing points between Canada and Michigan.

While Canadian officials — with plenty of urging from the U.S., including President Joe Biden — are mulling different ways to end the blockade resulting from the ongoing protest against COVID-19 mandates by Canadian truckers, an industry source familiar situation told TheDetroitBureau.com GM is starting to ship components into the U.S. via the Peace Bridge that connects Fort Erie, Ontario and Buffalo, N.Y.

Using the Peace Bridge rather than the Ambassador or Blue Water bridges in Detroit and Port Huron, Michigan, respectively, adds at least five hours to the transport time — not including any potential delays at the crossing.

A check of the online cameras, which are now offline, at the bridge reveal showed a long line of semi-trucks lined up waiting to get into the U.S. The Peace Bridge website shows that as of Thursday at 5 p.m. the wait time for large trucks to cross the bridge from Canada into the U.S. was 101 minutes. Light duty and passenger vehicles were facing no wait times.

According to the company, it’s cancelled three shifts at its Lansing Delta Township plant and now has told workers on the first shift at the Flint (MI) truck plant they don’t need to come in Friday due to parts shortages caused by the lengthy delays the Detroit and Port Huron crossings.

GM’s not alone in seeing the cascading effect of the delays as Toyota idled three plants in Ontario, a senior spokesman confirmed, joining a growing list of manufacturers that have been forced to cut back production due to the trucker blockade that has all but halted access to two key bridges linking the U.S. and Canada.

Ford and Stellantis have also had to adjust production plans as the protests on the Canadian side of the border drag on.

“It is a mess,” Carla Bailo, the CEO of the Center for Automotive Research, or CAR, told TheDetroitBureau.com on Thursday morning. “What we’re seeing is that the plants in Canada are really getting strangled first. Then the plants in the U.S. relying on engines and transmissions will be hurt next.”

What’s happening at the automakers

Stellantis — the automaker formed last year by the merger of Fiat Chrysler and the PSA Group — was the first hit by the border crisis. It briefly halted operations at an assembly plant in Windsor producing the Chrysler Pacifica minivan. It has since resumed operations.

“All Stellantis North America plants are running as of Thursday morning, but a number of U.S. and Canadian plants cut short second shifts Wednesday night due to parts shortages caused by the closure of the Detroit/Windsor bridge,” a Stellantis spokesperson said in a statement. 

Toyota RAV4 assembly worker
Toyota’s three plants in Ontario, Canada are shutdown for the rest of this week. It’s operations in Kentucky are being affected too.

“We continue to work closely with our carriers to get parts into the plants to mitigate further disruptions. 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. We hope a resolution can be reached soon so our plants and our employees can return to normal operations.”

Toyota’s three operations in Ontario are down for “the remainder of the week and then it is TDB,” chief spokesman Scott Vazin said Thursday morning. The company builds the RAV4 and Lexus RX in Cambridge, Ontario and the RAV4 hybrid in nearby Woodstock. “They’re core models for the two brands,” Vazin said. “It’s impacting Toyota in a big way.”

Vazin further updated TheDetroitBureau.com early Thursday afternoon about the impact on the company’s plant in Kentucky.

“Due to a number of supply chain, severe weatherand COVID related challenges, Toyota continues to face shortages affecting production at our North American plants. Our teams are closely monitoring the situation and working diligently to minimize the impact on production,” he said. 

Stellantis Windsor line 2020
Stellantis shutdown its Windsor (Ont.) plant that builds the Pacifica due to the trucker blockade, but it is back up and running.

“Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada and Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky have recently been impacted by issues related to the Ambassador Bridge blockade. We expect disruptions through the weekend, and we’ll continue to make adjustments as needed. While the situation is fluid and changes frequently, we do not anticipate any impact to employment at this time.”

Ford Motor Co. had two operations impacted in Ontario — including an assembly plant in Oakville producing the Edge and Lincoln Nautilus — reduce capacity. And a major engine plant in Windsor that serves assembly plants on both sides of the border was down Wednesday and is back up today at reduced capacity, according to a Ford spokesperson.

The potential impact of the trucker blockade is underscored by the Windsor plant. It produces engines for Ford’s Super Duty pickups, which are assembled in Kentucky and Ohio. They are among the most profitable vehicles in the entire Ford portfolio.

Toyota Georgetown Kentucky plant line
Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky plant is now being impacted by the blockade at the border.

So far, the two U.S. pickup plants have not been affected, said Kelli Felker, a Ford spokesperson. But a General Motors assembly plant in Lansing, Michigan has become the first factory south of the border to be directly impacted by the protests.

Why they are protesting

Thousands of truckers began descending on the Canadian capital of Ottawa, Ontario last month to protest that country’s mask and vaccine mandates. The demonstrations have virtually shut down that city. On Monday, the protest began to spread to Windsor, truckers tying up access to the Ambassador Bridge.

The span, which opened in 1929, is the single most important land crossing between the U.S. and Canada, handling 25% of bilateral trade between the two countries.

Ford Oakville plant
Ford’s plant in Oakville, Ontario, has been impacted by the blockade.

Authorities responded by redirecting traffic to two other regional border crossings. The tunnel between Windsor and Detroit can only handle light vehicles, however. So, trucks were sent more than an hour north to the Blue Water Bridge. But protestors quickly moved to tie up that link on the Canadian side, as well.

While some traffic has been able to move across the spans, they have been operating in one direction and at a crawl, trucks taking more than four hours to move from Sarnia to Port Huron.

Government responses

What happens next is uncertain. Earlier this week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared, “This has to stop.”

On Wednesday, White House spokesperson Jennifer Psaki said President Joe Biden has waded in. The president “is focused on this and we are working very closely” with both the U.S. Homeland Security Department and the Canadian government to find ways to end the blockade or work around it.

Biden meets CEOs two Jan 2022
President Joe Biden is looking for ways to end the blockade.

The two bridges handle about $100 billion worth of automotive parts and finished vehicles annually, according to industry data. But they also serve as key transit points for agricultural products and other goods, noted CAR CEO Bailo. So, the impact on the broader economies of Canada and the U.S. could become severe if a resolution isn’t quickly found.

The auto industry, however, is at a particularly vulnerable point after having to cope for two years with COVID and an ongoing shortage of semiconductors. There currently are only about 1 million vehicles in U.S. dealer lots, reported J.D. Power, down from the more than 3 million considered normal for this time of year.

As a result, shoppers are finding it hard to locate the new vehicles they want, while also dealing with fast-rising prices. According to Power and other tracking services, the average transaction price for a new vehicle jumped to around $47,000 by the end of 2021, up more than $10,000 since the beginning of the pandemic.

There are only a handful of vehicles at Suburban Ford of Ferndale in the near suburbs of Detroit, sales manager Brycen Collins told TheDetroitBureau.com. He now is worried that his inventory could shrink further due to the blockade.

“Everything I heard is that we have a couple more days before it starts hurting us.”

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