Each day, Wildeboer trucks make 38 trips over the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit, shuttling between the company’s factories in both countries. Shipments are just a fraction of the $300 million in daily trade that moves through the aging steel span and is jeopardized by traffic protests over coronavirus restrictions and vaccination mandates in Canada.
For the automotive industry, the borders between the United States, Canada and Mexico were effectively erased almost 30 years ago by a North American trade agreement. The industry has since developed into a tightly choreographed industrial ballet that relies on parts arriving at a factory just in time to be used.
“We’re doing a piece Monday morning, it’s probably on a vehicle by Wednesday,” Wildeboer said.
The partial blockade of the Ambassador Bridge, now in its third day, threatens to derail the normal transfer from plant to plant. A long stalemate, like the first “freedom convoy” that blocked Ottawa streets for 11 days, could send layoffs to factories in both countries.
Already, Ford has said it has stopped making new truck engines at a plant in Windsor and reduced production of Edge sedans at its assembly plant in Oakville, outside Toronto. Stellantis said he interrupted production at its Ontario plant.
“The Windsor Assembly Plant had to cut its first and second shifts on Tuesday due to parts shortages,” Stellantis said in a statement Wednesday. “The factory resumed production this morning. We continue to work closely with our carriers to get parts to the factory to mitigate further disruptions.
Toyota said on Wednesday it was facing “shortages affecting production at our North American plants,” including in Canada, but the Japanese automaker said it “does not anticipate any employment impact for the moment”.
Magna International, an Aurora, Ont.-based supplier of vehicle components including chassis and seats, said it had moved some of its shipments to other border crossings due to the bridge obstruction.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said administration officials are working with Canadian counterparts and industry leaders to mitigate damage to the auto industry, U.S. agricultural exports and the flow of workers between the United States and Canada.
“We are very focused on that. The president is very focused on that,” Psaki said.
At the Ambassador Bridge, a lane across the Detroit River remained open Wednesday, allowing limited traffic into the United States. Trucks bound for Canada are redirected to the Blue Water Bridge in Sarnia, Ontario, about 60 miles away. Given the vehicle congestion and resulting delays in Sarnia, the longer route adds three hours to the usual truck route, Wildeboer said.
Martinrea is a ‘Tier 1’ industry parts manufacturer, which means it directly supplies giants such as GM, Daimler, Bentley and Honda. Based in Vaughan, Ontario, the company has nearly 16,000 employees, including approximately 5,000 production workers in the United States and 2,500 in Canada.
Martinrea plants can be found in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, and Missouri.
If normal trade flows are not restored soon, some Martinrea operations will be forced to shut down, Wildeboer said. Three of the company’s facilities near London, Ont., will be among the first to feel the effects of the blockade.
“We’re doing big stuff,” Wildeboer said. “We cannot maintain production and things are piling up in our yards. The yard would be full in a day and a half.
Nearly two years into a pandemic that has upended normal life, Wildeboer is sensitive to protesters’ frustration with the Canadian government’s demand that truckers be vaccinated. If it were up to him, he would abandon the mandate, since 90% of Canadian truckers have already been vaccinated, and the rest could easily be assigned to domestic routes.
But his sympathy ends where the blockade that strangles the economy begins. The thriving protest began with hundreds of tractor-trailers blocking Ottawa streets and honking their horns, before spreading to Windsor.
The Ontario Trucking Association released a statement disavowing the protests and insisting that “most of the protesters have no connection to the trucking industry.” Similarly, Canadian news reports on the Ambassador Bridge said large trucks outnumber pickups and sedans there, suggesting that many protesters are from other segments of society.
Automakers are already struggling to supply dealers with enough vehicles to keep pace with growing consumer demand. The protest against the bridge only complicates these efforts. On Wednesday, the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association, which represents major producers including local affiliates of Ford, GM and Stellantis, called for an end to blockades by truckers and their supporters.
During the pandemic, the auto industry has suffered a roller coaster of factory closures, the worst sales slump since the 2008 financial crisis, an unforeseen recovery and surprising shortages of computer chips needed in modern vehicles.
Martinrea struggled more than most. The company’s stock price has fallen nearly 31% in the past year, nearly three times the decline of the Standard & Poor’s auto industry index.
The company lost $13.5 million in the third quarter of last year after posting a profit of $34.4 million in the same period a year earlier. Briefing investors on financial performance, Wildeboer delivered a blunt verdict: “The third quarter was a bit of a sucker.”
Although conditions have improved in the last three months of the year, new supply problems are constantly emerging. Last week, one of Wildeboer’s customers managed to secure the computer chips it needed, but was still forced to stop for three days because it couldn’t get enough vehicle headlights, Wildeboer said.
Its American factories are grappling with the same labor shortage that afflicts other employers. European facilities are hammered by high energy costs. Supplies of resin, used in injection-molded plastic parts, also remain scarce.
“We’re kind of used to getting punched in the face,” Wildeboer said, adding he was “moderately optimistic” about the prospects for finding a quick solution to the bridge standoff.