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Truckers protesting vaccine mandate block two Michigan bridges to Canada

Ambassador Bridge
The Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, carries nearly 8,000 trucks and more than $323 million in goods each day. (Shutterstock)

Feb. 14: Ambassador Bridge reopens after Canadian border crossing protests
Feb. 10: Michigan officials call for trucker protest to end 'immediately and safely'

As two vital bridge links to Canada remained clogged by trucker protests for a third day, Michigan business officials warned Wednesday that the situation could disrupt a state economy that hinges on trade.

“Canada is Michigan’s No. 1 customer across multiple segments of the economy,” said Chuck Lippstreu, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association, which represents businesses that support farmers.

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“That partnership is incredibly important for Michigan,” he told Bridge Michigan, “and we don’t want to see trade … interrupted.”

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On Monday, Canadian truckers calling themselves the Freedom Convoy shut down Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, causing massive traffic delays on both sides of the border. The convoy was initially launched in response to U.S. and Canadian rules that took effect Jan. 22 requiring cross-border truckers to be fully vaccinated to enter either country.

As trucking traffic was rerouted from the Detroit-to-Windsor crossing to Port Huron’s Blue Water Bridge to Sarnia, Ontario, that span became the second scene of  massive traffic backups.  Authorities asked motorists to avoid freeways around Port Huron, as traffic came to a standstill along eastbound Interstate 94 and eastbound Interstate 69 for several miles west of the bridge entrance.

By Wednesday, Canadian police were calling for backup on the Windsor side of the Ambassador Bridge, where one lane was opened for limited traffic to the U.S., according to CBC News. And they were dealing with protesters blocking Highway 402 toward Sarnia and the Blue Water Bridge crossing, where commercial traffic was delayed for four hours.

White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said Wednesday that President Joe Biden is speaking with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, automakers and Canadian officials about the problem.

"The president is focused on this and we are working very closely with the team at (Homeland Security and) with Canadian officials and others to do everything we can to alleviate the impact," Psaki told reporters.

"We support peaceful protest, but we have concerns when those protests turned violent. And certainly I think it's important for everyone in Canada and the United States to understand what the impact of this blockage is on workers on supply chain and that is where we are most focused."

The Ambassador Bridge is a vital artery for Michigan’s auto industry and overall trade, as it carries nearly 8,000 trucks and more than $323 million in goods each day, including auto parts, engines and vehicles. 

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the bridge is the busiest international land-border crossing in North America and accounts for nearly a third of the two-way annual trade between Canada and the U.S., estimated at more than $600 billion

Further delays at the two spans would only add to the headaches of an auto industry under strain because of global supply chain snags, a shortage of computer chips and staffing shortages. There were already signs of an impact from the protests.

A spokesperson for automaker Stellantis ─ which manufactures Chryslers ─ told the Detroit Free Press it cut short its morning shift at its Windsor assembly plant, which produces the Chrysler Pacifica minivan, due to a parts shortage.

And there are growing signs of a U.S. trucker protest similar to that in Canada, as truckers opposed to vaccine mandates are laying plans for a protest convoy that would end in Washington, D.C.

In the Canadian capital of Ottawa, hundreds of trucks continue to paralyze the city as shuttered businesses report hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. Though polls show a majority of Canadians oppose the trucker protests, they have crystallized resentments by a minority of Canadians to pandemic restrictions.

Proponents of Michigan trade with Canada note that it’s only been six months since the border with Canada has been fully open, after COVID-19 restrictions closed the border to all but essential traffic in March 2020. That caused considerable harm to the state’s $26 billion tourist sector, which saw more than 1 million Canadian visitors a year before the pandemic struck.

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Lippstreu of the Michigan Agri-Business Association said he fears the vaccine requirement for truckers will only exacerbate a long-term driver shortage that has crimped the state’s economy.

According to the American Trucking Association, the national shortfall of drivers spiked from 61,500 drivers before the pandemic to at least 80,000 today, with estimates the shortage could reach 160,000 in 10 years. Even before the pandemic, the industry faced a shortage of drivers as older drivers retired. The average age of a long-haul truck driver in 2018 was 55 years old.

According to the Oakland Press, Bureau of Labor Statistics report that the number of drivers fell by over 2,600 in southeast Michigan, by over 5,000 statewide, and by over 58,400 nationwide between 2019-2020.

“The new vaccine requirements at the border take the historic shortage of truck drivers and drive it up even more,” Lippstreu said.

He called for a “common sense” exemption to the vaccine requirement for truck drivers, that in his view would open up this key piece in the supply chain.

“The real threat to Michigan is we don’t have enough drivers heading to Canada right now.”

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