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.
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.
City officials in August presented to the CMCEA a new contract. The contract proposed a universal 5% pay reduction and various cuts to employees' sick pay and vacation time. Labor officials called the two-year contract "offensive," and within hours of the Aug. 6 negotiation session, the CMCEA had a website up to express the group's side of the debate.
Righeimer countered that the initial offer was a return to "normalcy" and more in keeping with what private-sector employees receive, especially when it comes to sick and vacation time. It is also fairer to taxpayers, who pay public workers' salaries, he wrote in a commentary to the Daily Pilot.
The two sides are next scheduled to meet Sept. 10 for further contract talks.
"What's happening in Costa Mesa, in many ways, is part of a broader national conflict between public-sector unions and the employers," Wong said. "Especially in situations like Costa Mesa, you have a very conservative council majority. They're moving very aggressively to try and limit the rights of public-sector workers."
Also at issue in Costa Mesa is a recent lawsuit that Righeimer, his wife, Lene, and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger filed against the Costa Mesa Police Officers' Assn.; its former law firm, Upland-based Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir; and a private investigator, Chris Lanzillo.
The three allege that they suffered emotional distress after the police union's law firm retained Lanzillo. The former Riverside police officer, the lawsuit alleges, tailed Righeimer after he left a bar owned by a fellow councilman. It further says that Lanzillo reported to police a suspected case of driving under the influence — even though, it turned out, Righeimer had only ordered Diet Coke.
A police officer conducted a field sobriety test outside Righeimer's Mesa Verde home and found no cause to cite him. The police association has publicly denied any advance knowledge of the private investigator's activities.
The CMCEA's current contract, which expired in March, calls for "continuous uninterrupted and efficient service to the city of Costa Mesa by the city and its employees." It also agreed to no strikes, "slow-down strikes," boycotts, work stoppages or "non-informational picketing" during the term of the MOU.
The proposed new contract does not deviate from that language.
Folsom said that before the CMCEA joined the OCEA, it was a small group on its own when it came to negotiating, though the relationship among the employees, council members and management was more amicable.
"Lately, with all the interconnections with the City Council and the O.C. GOP, the OCEA, having dealt with that before, seemed to be a better fit," Folsom said. "So far, the relationship has been pretty good, as far as I know. They've helped us quite a bit and, actually, they're very attuned to the citizens of Costa Mesa. They've spent a lot time here and got to know a lot of people here."
CMCEA membership isn't mandatory, though nonmembers pay a fee to cover the cost of representation, Muir said.
California law requires that the association negotiate contracts for all employees in the bargaining unit, not just members, she said.
Wong said that when modern labor laws were adopted in the 1930s, they didn't include public employees. Instead, they primarily applied to private-sector workers within large companies.
Now, the opposite is true. "Today, public-sector unions actually outnumber private-sector union members," he said. Furthermore, many of those members are being targeted by politicians.
"With more public-sector unions, there's a lot more challenges and attacks," Wong said, especially when cities, counties and states are "increasingly having difficulty with their finances and trying to balance the budget."
Mensinger said he tries to remember that the rank and file don't always approve of what their leaders do or say.
"Not all members of the association like the tactics of the association," he said, "but they universally like the benefits."
Folsom, who has described himself as a big "for the middle class guy," said for all the vitriol directed at unions, there should be more thanks for what unions historically have fought for and achieved, such as the eight-hour workday.
And in Costa Mesa's case, he said, its union's goal is doing "the best job for the citizens of Costa Mesa — always has been."