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."

Jennifer Muir, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents the CMCEA collective-bargaining unit of about 200 municipal workers, agreed that unions and associations are covered by the same laws. The Santa Ana-based OCEA is the county's largest independent labor union, according to its website, and represents about 18,000 government employees in their collective bargaining. CMCEA has been with the OCEA since 1999.

In an email, Muir called labor organizations "diverse in almost every way, from their political leanings, their philosophies, internal regulations and even how they choose to be identified. They are comprised of workers who advocate collectively for the interests of the working families they represent."

Each bargaining unit sets its own tone, philosophy and approach, she said, in a "truly democratic process."

"In reality, you can put members of 10 different unions and associations in the same room and get 11 opinions," Muir said.

Some of those opinions may be political, and in the case of labor unions, their categorization under the federal tax code as a 501(c)(5) — a type of nonprofit — permits them to engage in lobbying and other political activities, said Kent Wong, director of UCLA's Center for Labor Research and Education.

That's not the case with other nonprofits like the United Way and the Boy Scouts, Wong said.

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