Labor unions marched side-by-side with Occupy Seattle protesters from the beginning. But when the King County Labor Council rallied at Westlake Park earlier this fall in favor of President Barack Obama's jobs bill, occupiers balked.
Unions are eager for the jobs Obama's bill would create.
Occupiers weren't supportive of that specific legislation, or any for that matter. But occupiers are also weighing economic issues, racial justice and environmental concerns, among many, many others.
"We realized very early on that we had to be very clear who we were speaking for and make sure [our comments] were in labor terms," said David Freiboth, King County Labor Council's executive secretary and treasurer.
The unusual relationship has run both ways. Any time a union picks up signs to take action, media outlets and outside observers assume it's Occupy Seattle.
After more than two months of occupying Westlake Park, Seattle City Hall and Seattle Central Community College, occupiers and labor groups are finding a common ground and defining their relationship.
While are sides are frustrated by the current state of the economy and the lack of government solutions, they're also approaching the issue from very different vantage points.
Aliana Bazara, a member of Occupy Seattle's media working group, said occupiers were wary of organized labor early on, just as they were of any other organization that created a hierarchy or circumvented built-in consensus-based governance.
"Working Washington has been around forever. So has the King County Labor Council. So has the AFT [American Federation of Teachers]," Bazara said. "They are very organized and know how to get stuff done."
So the message from Bazara and occupiers was simple: "We will get there through your help, not through your control."
Freiboth, for one, heard that message. He said he recognized the slow, ever-changing process of the occupy movement. He noted that it often didn't work to keep a list of contacts from Occupy Seattle because the people involved shift and move.
"I think it's important to view [Occupy Seattle] as an organic and in-the-moment phenomena," Freiboth said. "It's a spontaneous uprising against the economic stress that we're feeling right now."
When occupiers gather, they're trying to find consensus among hundreds of people at once. For them, this is what democracy looks like.
Labor groups provide meals, help pay for Occupy Seattle's sanitation at its SCCC encampment and attend the same rallies. But they don't take over.
Bazara said Occupy may move toward more organized action or even a union-like list of demands, but it takes time.
"We are figuring out what our end goal is," Bazara said. "We don't have a list of demands, because we're still trying to figure out this place that we're in and how we solve it."
Deirdre Burns, an oral surgery program coordinator at the University of Washington School of Dentistry, put on her Service Employees International Union T-shirts and buttons and picked up a sign for the 99 percent.
Burns said the occupy movement has given unions a much-needed boost, bringing a "youthful, impulsive energy" to the conversation. She said she longed for that kind of energy.
And as unions and the occupy movement work together, outside observers are seeing them as one and the same.
Local media and onlookers assumed Occupy Seattle ran protests on University Way Nov. 9 and University Bridge Nov. 17. Labor groups organized both.
Bazara said that concerns her. She doesn't want anyone to co-opt the occupy movement for its own purpose, so she doesn't want to inadvertently co-opt anyone else's work either.
Freiboth said it's not a problem with him. A protest by any other name will smell just as angry and draw just as much attention. When occupiers join union members, the numbers grow.
And they still share the same core concern.
"There's a certain amount of cross- pollination between our more structured approach and their less structured approach," Freiboth said. "Where we have common ground is frustration in the economic situation."