Union with Obama ties rents offices for Occupy DC

Local,DC,Aubrey Whelan

A labor union with strong ties to President Obama is helping make the Occupy Wall Street movement a more permanent fixture in the nation's capital, moving Occupy DC into office space the group can use to organize and grow through the presidential election.

The Service Employees International Union, one of Obama's most vocal supporters among labor groups, is paying $4,000 a month for three offices the Occupy protesters will use for at least the next six months to plan future demonstrations, organize and host workshops.

The offices are at the Institute for Policy Studies, a nonprofit progressive group headquartered at 16th and L streets NW, amid the major law firms, trade groups and lobbying shops that Occupiers have spent the past seven months denouncing. The offices are just a short distance from the tent city Occupy DC established in McPherson Square in October.

Occupiers moved into their new digs Monday. The SEIU will pay the rent for six months, said John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies.

SEIU representatives did not return calls seeking comment, but Cavanagh and Occupiers confirmed the union's role in helping Occupy establish a headquarters of sorts in Washington.

Like its counterparts at the AFL-CIO and other major labor unions, the SEIU has long been supportive of the Occupy protests, though relations between the protesters and labor haven't always been smooth. Occupiers distanced themselves from the SEIU in the past, saying they were uncomfortable with the union's vocal support for Obama.

Occupiers said they don't want to be associated with either major political party and chafed at the unions' adoption of Occupy slogans and rhetoric like "We are the 99 percent."

The SEIU contributed millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers to help elect Obama in 2008 and was among the first to endorse his reelection this year. Former SEIU President Andy Stern was once the Obama White House's most frequent guest, logging nearly two dozen visits, and served on Obama's deficit reduction commission.

The Occupiers' lease will run right up to Election Day this fall, though Occupiers insist they're aren't organizing on behalf of Obama.

Protester Sam Jewler said Occupiers still don't agree with the SEIU's support of Obama, who embraced the Occupy movement early on but has said little about it since Occupiers and police clashed in New York, Oakland, Calif., San Francisco and elsewhere.

Still, Jewler said Occupiers recognize they have common interests with labor unions, like fighting income inequality, on which they can work together. Occupiers said they view the union's backing as a donation with no strings attached.

"We've got full control of how we allocate space, time, resources, access," said protester John Zangas. "Nobody's telling us what to do. We still have our own brand name. We continue with unbridled decision making."

Cavanagh said the union offered months ago to rent space for Occupy, which chose a suite of offices at the institute in part because the peace group was a long-established presence at Occupy. The institute has been hosting discussions in McPherson Square for months and has been allowing Occupiers to use its empty offices on Sundays and in rainy weather.

"We've known these people for five months," Cavanagh said. "It's great to have them."

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