By Sam Krahn, Intern

Few industries have been upended as deeply due to the global pandemic and its cascading effects as the automotive industry.

Supply-chain issues impacting production and employee health and safety, new-car shortages caused by microchip shortages, and skyrocketing used-car prices have all forced the industry to find ways to pivot from one unexpected crisis to another. Now, just two months into the year, another unforeseen challenge has the industry reeling.

In Canada, truckers are protesting a vaccine mandate that requires all exempt essential travelers to show proof of vaccination when crossing the U.S. – Canada border. Their chosen protest method? Blocking the Ambassador Bridge.

The lineup of trucks has forced General Motors, Ford, Stellantis and Toyota to either slow down production at many of their automotive plants or halt production altogether, leading to lost wages for some workers and lost revenue for automakers and suppliers.

According to the Canadian Trucking Alliance, the majority of Canadian truckers are vaccinated. These protests represent the demands of the minority, not the reality of the majority. Yet, the blockade is having a widespread impact on the Canadian, Michigan and U.S. economies.

The protests are hurting many industries and making travel for international commuters nearly impossible. The auto industry, however, could be hit hardest. Given the Ambassador Bridge’s proximity to Detroit’s automotive hub, it’s a major shipping corridor for the industry. Millions of dollars’ worth of cars and their parts travel to dealerships and factories daily. With an already troubled supply chain, an extended closure of North America’s busiest international border crossing could spell disaster. For context, an estimated $323 million worth of goods cross the bridge daily.

Consider the many Canadian auto suppliers located in Ontario – Magna, Linamar, Martinrea and Multimatic, to name a few. Each of these companies has factories in both Canada and the U.S., and depends on the Ambassador Bridge to transport products.

Further up the supply chain lie the assembly plants where those supplier parts turn into vehicles. Here again, there’s a deep relationship between Ontario and Detroit. General Motors, Ford, Stellantis, Toyota and Honda all build vehicles in Ontario. With the bridge blocked, these assembly plants can’t get the parts they need to build cars or ship completed vehicles to dealers.

The impact on automakers is already widespread. As of Friday, February 11, General Motors’ Lansing Delta Township plant, Toyota’s Kentucky and Ontario plants, Stellantis’ Ontario and Brampton plants, Honda’s Alliston plant and Ford’s Ontario engine plant have all slowed or halted production as a result of the blockade, according to Automotive News.

This protest has the potential to cost automotive companies millions, if not billions, depending on how quickly the situation is resolved. More important, however, are the threats posed to people’s livelihoods. Hourly factory workers depend on the supply chain to keep factories open and earn a living. A small group of Canadian truckers is denying them that right.

These protests leave government, business and automotive PR staffs at a challenging crossroad. Those involved have taken a neutral approach, demanding the bridge reopens but avoiding placing the blame on the truckers or the Canadian mandate.

MICHauto Executive Director Glenn Stevens praised Ford for its statement, which shows how these protests are just adding to the exhaustion the auto industry supply chain has faced over the past two years.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called on the Canadian government to take action, saying the blockade hurts workers and their families:

“My message is simple: reopen traffic on the bridge.

In Michigan, our economy continues to grow because of our hardworking people and innovative small businesses. Now, that momentum is at risk. Commercial traffic is at a standstill at the Ambassador Bridge and heavily backed up at the Blue Water Bridge. 

The blockade is having a significant impact on Michigan’s working families who are just trying to do their jobs. Our communities and automotive, manufacturing, and agriculture businesses are feeling the effects. It’s hitting paychecks and production lines. That is unacceptable.”

The Canada-United States Business Association said the disruption is “an attack” on the economic well-being of people on both sides of the border:

“The Ambassador Bridge is the busiest trade crossing in North America and a vital enabler of our two economies. Given the importance of ensuring that the supply of food, medical products and industrial goods can continue, the disruption at the Ambassador Bridge is an attack on the well-being of our citizens and the businesses that employ them.”

The unexpected and serious nature of the Ambassador Bridge blockade also creates a new challenge for PR and crisis communications teams. With the issue in the national spotlight in both Canada and the U.S., automakers and major suppliers are being barraged with media requests for statements and comments on the crisis. Any executive from any company doing a media interview on any topic right now needs to be prepared to answer questions about the issue – even if the interview is supposed to be focused on a different topic.

With political tensions running hot on both sides of the border, anything an executive says right now about the issue could generate headlines. Companies that want to play it safe can decline to comment and refer media to trade associations for commentary. But companies have a right to take a stand on a matter of this importance. For those that do, we advise them to point out the very real economic impact that the supply and production disruptions will have on workers and their families.

This situation shows how the automotive industry is a complex, interdependent system that depends on every component running smoothly. With one of its most important elements interrupted, it’s impact on the industry and the importance of clear crisis communication is on full display.