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Will There Be a Trucker Protest in the U.S.?

And what about in Mexico?
by Jim Swift
February 17, 2022
Will There Be a Trucker Protest in the U.S.?
Demonstrators against COVID-19 vaccine mandates block the roadway at the Ambassador Bridge border crossing, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada on February 9, 2022. The protesters, who are in support of the Truckers Freedom Convoy in Ottawa, have blocked traffic in the Canada bound lanes of the bridge since Monday evening. Approximately $323 million worth of goods cross the Windsor-Detroit border each day at the Ambassador Bridge, making it North Americas busiest international border crossing. (Photo by Geoff Robins / AFP / Getty Images)

Although the Ambassador Bridge spanning the Detroit River between Canada and the United States was reopened earlier this week, the trucker protests dubbed the Freedom Convoys are still going on elsewhere—not just in Ottawa, where they began in late January, but now also in New Zealand and in Paris, where, let’s be honest, they love to protest.

Rumors have circulated for weeks about a Freedom Convoy being organized in the United States as well. But before digging into that possibility, let’s take a closer look at the Freedom Convoy in Canada.

I don’t want to get too deep into the Canadian politics of the trucking protest, which—from an American point of view—have been kind of amazing: the leader of the opposition ousted; the first-ever invoking of the 1988 Emergencies Act in order to quash the protests; a prime minister fighting, and sometimes flailing, for his political life. But here’s some relevant background that has been obscured by some of the truck blockades and political antics.

In late 2021, Canada, the United States, and Mexico each implemented requirements that “essential workers” be vaccinated and show proof of vaccination to cross the border. Truckers are certainly essential workers: Nearly three quarters of America’s freight is transported via truck at some point.

And the health reasons for the vaccination mandate are straightforward: Even though much of the work of a trucker is solitary in a truck cab out on the open road, truckers regularly interact with people from all over. The vaccine mandate for truckers also makes good economic sense, since the wellbeing of truckers has a direct effect on the supply chain. Trucking touches on nearly every aspect of American economic life in some way, so problems in the trucking industry can have huge economic ripple effects.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in January that “almost 90 percent” of Canadian truckers are vaccinated—so it’s a small, anti-vaccine fringe raising the ruckus. Moreover, as time has worn on and we’ve seen more of the Freedom Convoy, it has become apparent that the majority of those involved north of the border are not “truckers” in the generally understood sense. Yes, many of them own American-made pickup trucks (Canada does not currently produce pickups) but they are not truckers in the sense of long-distance commercial haulers. It might be more accurate to say that the protest is “trucker-inspired,” like Ted Cruz’s very clean Carhartt jacket at a border visit is also “trucker-inspired.”

In America, meanwhile, an estimated 50 to 60 percent of truckers are vaccinated. With vaccination rates so much lower than among Canadian truckers, why hasn’t the cross-border vaccine mandate been a bigger deal for American truckers? One reason: Exports to the United States represent a larger share of Canada’s near-border trucking than do U.S. exports to Canada. Another reason: American truckers who don’t like the vaccine mandate for cross-border trucking can usually take other jobs within the United States. If you work for a company that sends you across the border, your beef is with your company, not with the vaccine mandate. And if you are among the 10 percent of truckers who are independent owner-operators, you generally don’t have to go to Canada.

(That said, it’s not like the Freedom Convoy has made no splash at all in the United States. Many American conservatives and anti-vax types are cheering on the Freedom Convoy and donating money to help the protests. The donations themselves became a cause du jour of conservative victimhood last week, with Republican Attorneys General from Florida, Texas, West Virginia and Missouri “investigating” GoFundMe for refusing to serve as an intermediary for funding to the convoy because it would aid those breaking the law. With GoFundMe out, supporters went to GiveSendGo, which vowed to defy a court order prohibiting aiding the protest. About half of the money donated to the Freedom Convoy folks came from Americans.)

Let’s return to the billion-dollar question: Will the Freedom Convoys happen in the United States in anything like the way they did in Canada? Trucker protests have already been happening in some form. But will they disrupt trade to the degree that the Ambassador Bridge incident did, costing the economies of Canada and the United States about a cool $1 billion? Will there be massive demonstrations disrupting the flow of goods, as Sen. Rand Paul (hypocritically) has said he hopes for?

On one hand, it seems unlikely. As noted above, unvaccinated American truckers often have options other than driving to Canada. Besides, if you’re an owner-operator—either someone who owns a vehicle outright or who is paying off a loan for some part of the truck’s $100,000-plus cost—it doesn’t seem likely that you will want to renege on contracts and potentially lose future business, risking arrest and the impounding of your truck, just to join some protesters.

On the other hand, this is America we’re talking about here: I am sure we’ll see some truckers who own their trucks joining protests. There have been rumors that QAnon types have been trying to plan some version of a Freedom Convoy in the United States, and even if those rumors fizzle out, no one should be surprised if some truck drivers do indeed choose to protest for a while, providing inspiration for the pickup owners who want to show off their new “Let’s Go Brandon” mega-MAGA flag collection.

And what about Mexico? Since Mexican truck drivers are subject to the same COVID restrictions as their U.S. and Canadian counterparts, why is there no Convoy de la Libertad? One would assume that Texas Republicans cheering on the Canadian truckers and their sympathizers might also be cheering on Freedom Convoys at the southern U.S. border. Alas, while Cancun might be Canadian-born Ted Cruz’s favorite Texas snowstorm vacation destination, he hasn’t made the case for a Mexican Freedom Convoy.

The real reason there is no Mexican Freedom Convoy is a little-known fact of North American trucking and trade: There are almost no Mexican truckers driving in the United States or Canada. Despite Mexico being one of our largest trading partners, the United States has systematically screwed over Mexican truckers with something called “drayage.” It started with NAFTA, and it continued under President Trump’s USMCA trade deal. As the Journal of Commerce noted, holding a B-1 or B-2 visa “only allow[s] Mexican truckers to haul freight across the border, pick up freight, and return to Mexico.”

In other words, Mexican truckers are largely forbidden from operating in the United States, except within strict limits.

Stupid, right? Add to that logistical and labor shortages, and you end up with even more supply chain issues that far pre-dated COVID.

So it’s a funny visual, but if Ted Cruz had to pull a Kate McAllister from Home Alone and ride back to Texas from Mexico in the back of a truck with a polka band, it would be near impossible for him to do so without switching trucks at least once.

Just as Mexico is experiencing changes in labor supply and its trade supply chain, so, too, is the United States. It’s a good time to be a trucker: demand is up, wages are rising, and companies are offering bonuses to lure in drivers.

Which brings us to one last thing worth keeping in mind about the Freedom Convoys: The higher cost of trucking gets passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. So it’s less good nowadays to be a consumer or a producer or wholesaler of a product. And American anti-vaxxers cheering on the Freedom Convoy protesters should have in mind the cost that they themselves will be paying for goods if the disruptions continue and even spread.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.