The slew of protests earlier this year by U.S. and Canadian truckers against COVID-19 protection measures caused some annoying traffic jams in a handful of cities. But whether they signal a serious, long-term threat to an already-challenged supply chain is questionable.
That, at least, is the perspective of Adam Compain, senior vice president of project44, a supplier of software and analytics for supply chain visibility.
The protests began on January 22, when a convoy of truckers departed British Columbia, bound for the Canadian capital of Ottawa. Their ostensible motive was to demonstrate against a new requirement that truck drivers crossing from Canada to the U.S. be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus
The action clogged the streets of Ottawa for about two weeks. Protesters and their trucks also blocked the Ambassador Bridge, linking Windsor, Ontario with Detroit, Michigan, for almost a week. Similar protests struck the Canadian cities of Toronto, Quebec City and Calgary.
The Canadian protests were halted in mid-February by an emergency order issued by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, authorizing arrests and the towing of vehicles. But they quickly had a ripple effect, leading to a convoy clogging the streets of Washington, D.C. for a few weeks in March, then subsequently showing up in Sacramento, California. Other such actions were seen abroad, in France, Belgium, New Zealand and Finland.
The protests couldn’t have come at a worse time for supply chains, which have already been brought to a virtual halt in recent months by congestion at major U.S. ports, intermodal railyards and warehouses. One might ask whether the truckers’ actions will serve as the last straw that throws the whole system into gridlock. But Compain sees that fear as unwarranted — at least for now.
Media coverage of the Ambassador Bridge blockage tended to sensationalize the event, he says. There was indeed a 28% increase in last-mile parcel delivery time over a few days, but “the actual impact happened later than reported, and was less severe than it may have seemed to the general reader.”
In the end, Compain says, the delay “was not higher than those resulting from a late-January snowfall.”
Photos of the area showed an apparent total blockage of the area’s roads, but there was an alternative route that required a delay of just 75 to 90 minutes, Compain says. “Because the story was mounting, carriers were able to preplan and go that different route from the get-go.” Consumers were mildly inconvenienced, although the extra delay did have a more serious (if short-lived) impact on just-in-time manufacturing operations, especially those of automakers.
Other Canada-U.S. border crossings were affected, but not seriously enough to cause major blockages. And despite reports of congestion in other countries, the data showed “nothing overly significant,” Compain says.
The question remains, however, whether future political actions threaten to seriously compound the issues that supply chains are already facing due to disruptions and plant closures triggered by the pandemic, surging demand for consumer goods and the chronic driver shortage, especially in the longhaul sector. Should supply chain planners add expectation of such events to the mix of potential risk factors?
They shouldn’t be ignored, Compain says, but they’re unlikely to have as serious an impact as the slowdown at Southern California ports or temporary blockage of the Suez Canal. (To those more critical disruptions, one might add the possibility of a further slowdown, or even strike, by West Coast longshore workers this summer, if negotiations for a new labor contract don’t go smoothly.) The trucker protests, he says, “turned out to be more on the minor side.”
But what if they ramp up, goaded by media hype? “I don’t think we need to panic,” Compain says. “It’s a reality that voluntary or involuntary disruptions are going to keep cropping up.”
At the same time, “We’ve seen that supply chains are very resilient. Going through lockdowns and the holidays this past year wasn’t overly problematic.” (At least no worse than what supply chains were already experiencing during two years of COVID-19.)
The best way to get around disruptions of any kind, Compain says, is to have access to real-time data and visibility of the supply chain, so that remedial action can be taken quickly and efficiently. And if it can’t, he says transportation providers should be able to ask: “Are you quick to provide transparency to customers and suppliers? The good news is that over the past two years, when we’ve seen several straws that have broken the camel’s back, shippers and third-party logistics providers have continued to equip themselves with these tools.”
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