WASHINGTON — A reshuffling in the White House's labor operation has prompted complaints from some smaller labor unions that the Obama Administration's hand-in-glove relationship with big labor hasn't extended to all of its brethren.
"The responsiveness of the White House in the last four years has left some of us unsatisfied including myself, but we're very hopeful," said Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents public train and bus riders around North America. "I'm not clear though whether it was the person in that position or the inability of the person in that position to get the attention of the senior staff and the president that caused problems in the past. But there have been difficulties making things happen."
Hanley and some other labor leaders voiced their complaints after the appointment of a new labor liaison, Carri Twigg, a former Democratic National Committee staffer and Ohio Democratic Party operative. Twigg is replacing Nate Tamarin, a longtime Obama staffer and son of Chicago labor figure Henry Tamarin; the younger Tamarin left the liaison's job in May after serving in it for most of Obama's first term. Another top Obama hand with close ties to labor, former SEIU official and top White House and DNC staffer, Patrick Gaspard, was confirmed this week as Ambassador to South Africa.
And some in the disgruntled smaller unions say they doubt the change will mean much for them, but they're happy to see new blood.
"My problem is more with the administration than it is with their designated apologist," said Greg Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. The union represents thousands of government workers across the federal workforce.
Critics of the labor liaison role — formally associate director in the Office of Public Engagement, reporting to top presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett — say it's a junior position located far away from the centers of power. The White House's defenders, who include leaders at some of the biggest unions in the country, say the liaison's office has been a quick way to get directly plugged into the White House, but even they say a new liaison could help spread good feelings about the administration down the labor food chain.
The complaints come at a time of relative calm in an occasionally rocky relationship between labor and Obama, who beat Hillary Clinton in 2008 without the support of some of the country's biggest unions. Obama has angered teacher's unions with his support for charter schools, and on key issues like the Wisconsin labor fight of 2011. But the president has appointed a raft of pro-labor figures to federal positions, and delivered major victories to their members, including the auto industry bailout as well as Obama's new push for an increased minimum wage.
Some of the complaints from labor leaders about the liaison's office are very simple: It's been hard to get phone calls returned in the past, some said. Others are more personal: One mentioned he hadn't received a White House Christmas card in years. The officials grumbled that business leaders could easily get access to Jarrett and other top Obama officials directly while unions were stuck going through Tamarin first.
But more broadly, they say the liaison office was more focused on getting labor groups behind the president's existing policies rather than inviting labor to be a part of forming those policies in the first place. Hanley pointed to Obama's recent trip to a Tennessee Amazon warehouse to make a speech about jobs — a move that drew criticism from worker's advocates — as a sign that the White House doesn't invite union input before making decisions. Hanley noted that the Amazon warehouse was not accessible by public transport, a slap in the face to members of his transit union. Junemann said his union wasn't told ahead of time about Obama's proposal to study privatizing the Tennessee Valley Authority, a move that rankled the IFPTE's TVA employee members.
Internal union feuds play a large part in these concerns. Smaller labor groups often feel shutout by the big, rich unions, observers say.
"Smaller unions never feel like they get enough," said one former labor official who has also worked as a government representative to labor. "You can't expect the White House to jump every time a union that has 7,000 members has an issue."
It's also not clear that labor can ever be really satisfied in modern politics. Asked to contrast their experience with the Obama White House with labor outreach from past White Houses, most of the critics hearkened back to labor's heyday in the 20th century. More than one mentioned FDR.
It's not hard to get a union president, even one who thinks the White House is generally doing things right, to wax melancholy about the state of modern politics and labor's role in it. Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen had nothing but good things to say about the White House interactions with labor and Tamarin, but he said times are changing for unions in politics. Direct access isn't what it once was.
"Attacks led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on labor have paid off for the Chamber and its members," he said. "Collective bargaining is on its like last legs in America. And there's an impact from that [on political influence.] And so our strategy is to work with a large range of groups that potentially represent a majority of the country."
Obama's relationship with the larger unions like Cohen's — whose money and people power are still the engine of Democratic politics — is generally seen as good by top labor leaders.
"I actually think this president and this White House has a much better feel for the labor than the Clinton White House," said Bill Samuel, director of government affairs at the AFL-CIO, and Al Gore's labor liaison during the Clinton administration. "They could be critical of the labor movement because they were New Democrats. That's not what this White House is about... I think there's a much more organic understanding of the labor movement and our importance."
Samuel acknowledged the White House liaison's office has been a problem for some.
"I know he rubbed some people the wrong way," Samuel said of Tamarin, acknowledging that it was easier for a top official at the AFL-CIO to get his calls returned quickly during Obama's first term than it was for, say, the president of one of the AFL's smaller affiliates. And Samuel said that Tamarin didn't do much hand-holding, an important part of a job where people are desperate to feel like they're being heard.
"Nate is a very straight shooter. If he thought you were full of shit, he'd tell you," Samuel said. "Or if you're asking for something that was just impossible, which sometimes people do. They get angry at the White House when the president goes somewhere they don't want him to go or says something they don't want him to say. They'd call and complain and he'd tell you, you know, 'chill.'"
When word went out in labor circles that BuzzFeed was writing a story about the White House liaison office, top officials from the nation's largest unions reached out to heap praise on Tamarin, Twigg, the liaison office, and Obama.
"She did want me to pass along that she found Nate responsive, and honest, and her dealings with Carri have been the same," Marcus Mrowka, spokesperson for American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, wrote in a typical email.
Cohen said Twigg proved herself on the campaign trail for Obama last year.
"She's really good, she's really smart, she's really fast. There's nothing she can't do," he said. As for Tamarin, Cohen said, "our folks never had a bad interaction with him."
Tamarin declined to comment on the record. The White House defended him and the work of the liaison's office.
"America's economy is strongest when it's growing from the middle out, and President Obama has the utmost respect for the role America's working men and women and the unions who represent them have played in building a strong, thriving middle class," said White House spokesperson Matt Lehrich. "Over the past four years, our labor outreach team has worked tirelessly to ensure that working Americans always have a seat at the table. With her unique combination of experience and relationships, Carri is perfectly positioned to carry on that mission."
Big union leaders said Tamarin had a good personal relationship with the president, something they counted on. Tamarin worked for Obama starting in 2003, and followed him to the White House, taking the liaison job that critics characterized as "junior" but which paid $95,000 a year. Tamarin's young son starred in one of the most iconic photos of Obama's presidency: He's the kid in the Spiderman suit.
"It was clear that [Obama] and Nate were friends and that was very useful to us," said Samuel. "if the liaison knows the president personally, then that's an advantage."
Twigg was the Obama campaign's liaison to labor in 2012, and drew universal praise for the job she did from even the leaders who criticized the White House liaison office. Gaspard put her in the top job on the campaign trail, and helped get her the White House gig too. She carries his stamp of approval, which is important to union leaders who thought of Gaspard as closely aligned with labor's interests.
She didn't rise through the ranks of labor, however, which gives some critics pause.
"It would be wonderful if she was the communications director from a major union, but she wasn't," Junemann said. "I've seen other people who have resumes that aren't glowing but end up doing a pretty good job and I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt."
Early reviews of Twigg's performance have been positive, and have the critics hopeful they'll get the access they've been wanting since Obama took office.
"When she made a commitment she kept it," Henley said, recalling Twigg's time on the campaign trail. "So we are really hopeful that office will be more responsive in the coming weeks and months."