Updated Feb 11, 2022 - Economy

Populism's new inferno

Image of vehicles blocking the Ambassador Bridge between the U.S. and Canada to protest pandemic restrictions.

Protesters block the flow of commercial traffic over the bridge into Canada from Detroit. Photo: Cole Burston/Getty Images

What began as a small-but-loud truck convoy protest against Canadian pandemic restrictions has snowballed into an international crisis that's been choking the busiest border crossing in North America all week.

Driving the news: Copycat convoys are arising in other countries, including the United States, where officials warned of a potential disruption to Sunday's Super Bowl in Los Angeles.

What's happening: Factories facing a shortage of parts have been forced to stop production on both sides of the border after protesters supporting the truckers blocked access to Detroit's Ambassador Bridge.

  • The span is a lifeline for the U.S. auto industry, connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, and carrying 25% of all U.S.-Canada trade, per the AP.

The bridge is also the country's only privately owned border crossing.

  • Michigan billionaire Matthew Moroun, the owner, whose family also runs a giant trucking empire, told Crain's Detroit Business that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau either needs to end Canada's COVID vaccine mandate for truck drivers (90% are already vaccinated) or start arresting protesters.
  • The third option, he said, is to "do nothing and hope it goes away."

Why it matters: The disruptions are another heap of bad news for automakers, which have been grappling with pandemic-induced supply chain problems for two years. No layoffs have resulted so far, but the ripple effects could hinder both countries' recoveries, much like the global semiconductor shortage, experts say.

  • "Semiconductors were kind of a rolling boil — it took a while to see factory shutdowns. This is already at a full boil here, and the longer it drags on, the deeper the wound will be," IHS Markit economic analyst Peter Nagle tells Axios.
  • Agricultural exports from the U.S. to Canada are also at risk, government officials said.
  • “We’re very focused on this.  The president is focused on this,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday.

The latest: Auto-industry groups in Canada, backed by the city of Windsor, are seeking an injunction to end the blockade.

  • "The individuals on site are trespassing on municipal roads and if need be will be removed to allow for the safe and efficient movement of goods across the border," Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens told reporters Thursday.
  • But the protesters showed no sign of relenting, as another group used farm equipment and other vehicles to partly block the highway leading to another U.S.-Canada bridge where trucks were being diverted.
  • Dilkens told CNN the threat of violence was keeping authorities at bay. "We’ve seen protesters come out with tire irons when the police attempted to tow a car. It could escalate very, very quickly, and you have people on the ground so committed to this protest that they have expressed themselves and said that they’re willing to die for this particular protest.”

Meanwhile, automakers again are scrambling for workarounds.

  • GM is chartering cargo planes to fly parts stuck at the border over the Detroit River and into the U.S. to keep a critical truck plant going in Indiana, the Detroit Free Press reported.
  • Some could even resort to water barges to get parts across the Great Lakes, as they did in the weeks after 9/11, when tightened border security disrupted the industry's just-in-time production, notes Thomas Goldsby, a University of Tennessee professor and supply chain expert.

Even if the standoff ends soon, the political battle that prompted it is picking up steam in both countries, says Regina Bateson, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa who researches political violence.

  • "The convoy has already won," she tells Axios.
  • With financial support from like-minded Americans through GoFundMe and another Christian fundraising site, "they've already succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They've taken the territorial core of Ottawa, held it for two weeks, and that has given them a platform to speak to the world."
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