A small crowd of activists from Bronx Climate Justice North gathered outside Rep. Eliot Engel’s office Wednesday in Riverdale to demand stronger and bolder leadership in combating the climate crisis.
While numbering just a handful of protesters — nearly equaled by the small number of police and Engel staff who stepped outside — the group’s demands reflected broader questions about the fight for climate action. These include the place of more conservative caucuses within the Democratic Party, the role of unions in politics and the source of campaign contributions — an emerging faultline within the party.
Many self-proclaimed progressive candidates tout their voting records and achievements while funding their reelection bids from the special interests they claim to oppose while others refuse to take money from certain industries, such as health care, fossil fuels, or the financial industry.
Congressman Engel, Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, does not accept money from fossil fuel companies, yet he has taken money from defense contractors Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.
“Wars are caused by and cause climate change,” said rally organizer Jennifer Scarlott noting that the Pentagon is one of the biggest polluters in the world. “We’re asking [Congressman Engel] to stop taking their money.”
On a somewhat more controversial note, ralliers also demanded that Engel stop taking money from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the fourth largest labor union in the country. Since 1992, Teamsters has donated over $22 million to Democratic candidates, 92 percent of their total political contributions. The union has faced scrutiny from environmental groups over their support for the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines — both approved by President Trump in January 2017.
Climate scientists have long warned that unconventional fossil fuels, like the tar sands in Alberta that the Keystone XL pipeline is attempting to bring to market, must be left in the ground or else it is “game over” for the climate.
Although the Teamsters have celebrated the jobs that will come with these pipelines, they have also joined the BlueGreen Alliance, which was forged between the United Steelworkers and Sierra Club in 2006 and that now includes some of the largest unions in the country, such as the Communications Workers of America and Service Employees International Union. Teamsters withdrew their support for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic in 2008, citing a false choice between jobs and a good environment.
Still, Bronx Climate Justice North is pushing for a change in Rep. Engel’s relationship to the union.
“We want Engel to be talking to labor of all stripes and there are some progressive labor groups who understand the climate emergency and are great on climate,” Scarlott told The Indy. “But the Teamsters are not. As long as the Teamsters are fighting to build fossil fuel infrastructure in this country, we don’t want Eliot Engel taking their money.”
The protest also exposed the struggle within the Democratic Party and even within its caucuses between centrist incrementalism and bolder progressivism. A central demand of the group was for Engel to lobby fellow members of the New Democrat Coalition for more aggressive climate action.
The coalition, made up of over a hundred centrist House Democrats, is the largest caucus within the Democratic Party. After Senator Merkley and Representative Ocasio-Cortez introduced the Green New Deal resolution in March, the New Dem leadership called it “loud” and have advocated for an “incremental” approach.
Bronx Climate Justice North want Rep. Engel and his fellow moderates to support a congressional resolution declaring climate change a national emergency and to support the Green New Deal.
Scarlott urged Engel to “see opportunities that are obvious, jump in at the beginning and lend the full weight of his moral support and leadership” to them. Engel’s centrism could soon be put to a test. He’s being primaried by the electoral activist group Justice Democrats, who helped propel Alexandrian Ocasio-Cortez to Congress last year in a nearby district.