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Originally published December 10, 2011 at 6:47 PM | Page modified December 10, 2011 at 6:47 PM

Arm of union latches on Occupy Seattle

Working Washington, an arm of some of the state's most powerful unions, is one of several organizations trying to harness the political power of Occupy Seattle.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Before the "99 percent" started protesting in Westlake Park, volunteers from Working Washington went door to door looking for them. They visited more than 100,000 homes this summer in South King County and South Seattle to talk to the disenfranchised, introducing themselves as members of a new nonprofit group called Working Washington and inviting people — many of them inexperienced in politics — to meetings.

But Working Washington is not truly grass-roots. It's an arm of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, which is known for its aggressive political tactics as one of the state's most powerful unions.

Working Washington has support from other labor and consumer groups, too, including the Teamsters and Washington Community Action Network.

Working Washington shares office space and staff with SEIU and was created as an attempt to bring new voices to the issues the left-leaning union has championed for decades: fair working conditions, health care, better wages and benefits.

The timing couldn't have been better. In October, the Occupy Seattle movement started making headlines downtown. Within a few weeks, Working Washington was indistinguishably entwined with the Occupy movement. In fact, Working Washington — not Occupy — organized some of the most prominent local protests of the past two months.

The group planned a Nov. 17 takeover of the University Bridge during rush hour, a protest outside the downtown hotel where a Chase bank executive was staying and recent demonstrations in Olympia.

All three were covered by the media largely as Occupy events.

"When the Occupy movement started, you know, we felt like it was a moment that we could sort of connect with this whole group of people," said Andrew Beane, the director of Working Washington.

The group has what Occupy does not: money, organization, training and political shrewdness. Now, with the state legislative session under way and big national political races heating up for 2012, Working Washington is one of several organizations trying to harness the political power of Occupy Seattle, a movement that is by design leaderless.

"We held numerous 100-plus person protests at banks throughout the spring and summer and got very little press coverage," said Adam Glickman, a spokesman for SEIU Local 775, "and then all of a sudden the Occupy movement arises and, for whatever reason, it created a spark ... There's sort of a level of organicness and spontaneity and authenticity that the Occupy movement has brought to this that just SEIU organizing an action at a bank didn't have six months ago."

King County Labor Council Executive Secretary David Freiboth compared it to early efforts by the right to organize the tea party, but he said Occupy is more averse to being co-opted by bigger, more organized groups like labor.

"They want our resources, but they don't want us to tell them what to do, and we want their activism, but we don't want to be drawn into some of their issues," Freiboth said. "It's a delicate dance between the two to ensure that we're not co-opting each other."

In Olympia at the end of November, hundreds of occupiers joined protests against budget cuts as the Legislature began its 30-day session to address budget woes. They relied heavily on union lobbyists and organizers, said Mark Taylor-Canfield, a spokesman for Occupy Seattle.

"They're definitely more politically savvy," he said. "Going to the state capitol has been a big civics lesson."

Taylor-Canfield said the media and public are often confused about which events are organized by Occupy and which are union events put on by Working Washington, but the Occupiers' nightly general assembly meetings ensure the movement stays autonomous.

One uncomfortable clash of opinions came to the surface last month at the University District rally organized by Working Washington.

During the rally, an Occupy Seattle speaker complained about the high cost of the $250 million Husky Stadium in a time of rising tuition. The heavily union crowd was awkwardly quiet. Unions support big projects like the stadium because they create jobs.

"The thing is, we have to educate. Say, 'Hey, those are living-wage jobs,' " said Jay Herring, a Working Washington supporter who was registering Occupiers to vote last month on behalf of Moveon.org.

In his mind, Working Washington is an opportunity for "cohesiveness" around decades-old union issues. And Occupy Seattle is the perfect home base.

"We're able to provide them with real necessities," said Rhiannon Hemsted, a Working Washington employee who was passing out professionally printed "99%" signs to Occupy protesters at Westlake Park recently.

Along with the signs, Hemsted handed out fliers urging people to go to Olympia for Occupy the Capitol, an event Working Washington pushed this year in lieu of a traditional pre-session lobbying week for unions that SEIU sponsors.

"We will not tolerate another all-cuts budget balanced on the backs of the 99 percent," said the fliers. Among the issues Occupy the Capitol championed are SEIU staples such as health care for all and protecting the jobs of public employees.

To Occupy Seattle's Taylor-Canfield, Working Washington's close alliance with the movement is another indication of how diverse a group identifies with Occupy. And that's how Hemsted says she sees it, as well.

"It's still sort of a big boat that we're all in together," she said. "I think a lot of people are really leery of being co-opted by the union." She added: "We were already working on these issues. We don't want to come on top of it or direct it."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.

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