Mackinac Bridge from the Straits of Mackinac

The Mackinac Bridge from the Straits of Mackinac / Wikimedia Commons

The Michigan Democratic Party traditionally has depended on the dual support of unions and environmentalists for decades, but a blue-green divide is splitting loyalties in the party.

Democrats can still count on public sector unions such as the Michigan Education Union and the Service Employees International Union. However, some private sector unions once reliably sympathetic to the party are voicing extreme differences with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s green agenda.

At issue is the proposed Enbridge Line 5 tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac, which has encountered administrative roadblocks from Whitmer and the state, including legal challenges from Attorney General Dana Nessel. Several prominent unions oppose the state’s attempts to stymie the tunnel, saying Whitmer and Nessel are killing thousands of high-paying union jobs in Michigan.

The schism has been labeled the blue-green Divide, with Democrats favoring unions on one side and Democrats espousing environmental concerns on the other side.

“The Line 5 debate in Michigan has put increasing pressure on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel to support both labor and environmentalists,” Mackinac Center for Public Policy Environmental Policy Director Jason Hayes wrote in a Lansing State Journal opinion piece.

“Unfortunately, the two interest groups aren’t always easy to reconcile, and Whitmer and her administration appear to have chosen her green allies over the blue-collar workers in this state,” Hayes said.

Whereas, Hayes noted, public sector unions support the Green New Deal proposed by many Washington Democrats, the United Auto Workers and AFL-CIO oppose it as job killers.

“They and other unions have also decried a wholly new phenomenon in Democratic Party policy-making: Environmental groups have the power,” Hayes said.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce teamed with the United Association of Union Plumbers, Fitters, Welders and HVACR Service Techs to express last June their combined support of the Line 5 tunnel.

General President Mark Manus wrote to Whitmer that the union’s 355,000 members "count on Line 5 to provide work opportunities.” He continued: "Our members also work in the refineries and industrial manufacturing plants that rely on Line 5 to provide fuel to continue their operations."

McManus added: “Without Line 5 in operation, many of these good paying jobs will be placed in jeopardy.”

The joint Chamber of Commerce and union letter expressed the two entities’ common goal.

"On the issue of building an underground tunnel to replace Line 5, business and labor agree," they wrote. “So let private industry, private funding and Michigan workers build the Straits Tunnel.”

The Line 5 project has been mired in controversy ever since the current pipeline, which spans the lake bed between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas, was struck by a tugboat anchor in 2018. Although the pipeline wasn’t compromised, concerns for its safety prompted Enbridge to propose housing the pipes in a tunnel built 100-feet in the bedrock underneath the Straits of Mackinac at the Canadian company’s own expense.

The blue-green Divide prompted Rep. Brian Elder, D-Bay City, to establish a labor caucus in the House of Representatives to promote union jobs from environmental activism.

“Progressive politicians have increasingly left working families behind in favor of following a ‘Sierra Club scorecard,’” Hayes said. “The growing blue-green divide is forcing workers to question past relationships and forge new alliances.”

Regional Editor

Bruce Walker is a regional editor at The Center Square. He previously worked as editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s MichiganScience magazine and The Heartland Institute’s InfoTech & Telecom News.