Pa. teacher files labor relations complaint against union over political mailing
Pennsylvania teacher Mary Trometter grew accustomed to the near constant barrage of union-sponsored political ads leading up to the mid-term election, but when they used her name in a letter to sway her husband, they pushed too far, she said.
Trometter, 50, of Williams-port filed a charge with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board on Tuesday, accusing the state’s largest teachers union and its national parent of making an illegal campaign contribution.
The case could ultimately clarify a state law that limits how union dues can be spent in politics.
Unions may legally spend dues “to communicate with members and their immediate family” about a candidate their boards recommend, Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman Wythe Keever said.
Keever said this particular type of communication wouldn’t happen again.
It was the first time the union had attempted to personalize such letters, and Trometter wasn’t the only PSEA member who was upset.
Keever said the union has apologized to about 30 members who complained about the personalized mailers, which were sent to at least 20,000 households.
“We’d never done a mailing of this type before, and we won’t be doing it again,” he said.
The letter that arrived at Trometter’s home addressed to her husband outlined the union’s case against Tom Corbett and concluded: “Please join Mary in voting for Tom Wolf for Governor on November 4th.”
Trometter, a registered Republican who never intended to vote for Wolf, found that offensive, she said.
“When I first read it, I was shocked,” said Trometter, who teaches culinary arts at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. “They were exploiting my name and membership for their own political causes.”
State law expressly prohibits using union members’ dues money to support a candidate, said David Osborne, general counsel for the Fairness Center, which filed the charge on her behalf.
Their case cites Section 1701 of Pennsylvania’s Public Employee Relations Act, which states that, “no employee organization shall make any contribution out of the funds of the employee organization either directly or indirectly to any political party or organization or in support of any political candidate for public office.”
State law has allowed, however, political communications from union leadership to union households.
Keever noted that the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United lends a First Amendment protection to that communication over and above state statute. Citizens United is generally understood to have conferred First Amendment constitutional rights upon corporations. It applies to unions as well, specifically in Pennsylvania under the terms of a separate case, General Majority PAC v. Aichele, so long as the union does not coordinate with the campaign.
“A lot of people have the perception that union dues cannot be used for political candidates,” said Nathan Benefield, vice president of policy analysis at the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation. “That’s how they present it, but you have to look at the fine print.”
In its July newsletter, PSEA reported that “dues are allocable to lobbying and political expenditures,” including thousands in commercials, mailers and media buys.
Campaign finance reports show the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s two largest teachers unions, spent a collective $60 million in the 2014 election cycle. Most of their candidates, except Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Tom Wolf, lost.
PSEA is the state branch of the National Education Association.
Between June and September, records show AFT Solidarity and NEA Advocacy — Super PACs funded through AFT and NEA, respectively — gave a combined $1.06 million to PA Families First, a state political action committee that spent nearly $2 million in the same period to produce and air an “Oppose Corbett” ad.
Bill Frye, 56, of Derry in Westmoreland County left the union and his job at Mt. Pleasant School District, where he taught for nearly 30 years.
Lawrence County teacher John Cress, 41, said, “If someone wants to support the causes the union does, that’s fine. It’s your decision.” Cress left his local PSEA affiliate last year. “But if you know you don’t agree with their politics, you should have the option not to fund it.”
Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or [email protected].