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Are employee associations unions?

Experts say they're basically the same, but in Costa Mesa the groups have agreed to a key difference: They can't strike.

August 31, 2013|By Bradley Zint

Against a backdrop of skirmishes between Costa Mesa's organized labor and its conservative council majority is a kind of war on words.

On one side is Mayor Jim Righeimer and his supporters, who in an effort to save the city money say they're fighting "the unions" and their "bosses."

On the other are the workers and their leaders, who, while trying to protect their benefits, have occasionally taken exception to Righeimer's use of the word "union." We're "employee associations," not unions, they argue.

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Experts, however, say the law offers its own perspective on the matter: There is no legal difference between unions and employee associations.

"Legally, they're charged with the same obligation: to negotiate a contract for their members and to enforce their contract under the law," said Robin Nahin of City Employees Associates, a Long Beach-based firm that represents 108 public employee associations throughout California.

Or, as Righeimer put it, "It's a distinction without a difference. That's all this is."

Still, in the case of the Costa Mesa City Employees Assn., its employment contract — officially known as a memorandum of understanding, or MOU — denies the group one powerful tactic: the ability to strike. That difference, some have claimed, is why it's fair to call it an association rather than a union.

"That is the most powerful thing that unions have, the ability to withhold their labor," said Billy Folsom, a retired city mechanic and former CMCEA president. "We cannot legally shut down the city tomorrow. That's a huge, huge deal."

Still, for some people, the word union leaves "a bad taste in their mouth," Nahin said.

But whether they are called unions or associations, their functions remain the same. Those include representing people who have problems on the job, collecting dues, retaining legal staff and extending the pay and benefits of members, she said.

For Righeimer, however, the "association" designation is kind of a euphemism.

"There's a reason why labor unions changed to call themselves associations," he said. "They want to be connected closer to the PTA than they want to be to the Teamsters."

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