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Blatant misuse of union dues

| Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

If someone used your name on an election mailer without your consent, you'd probably feel betrayed. But what if that mailer was sent to your spouse, lied about who you were voting for and made you pay for it all?

That's exactly what the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) did to 20-year union member and educator Mary Trometter.

Trometter, an assistant professor of culinary arts at Pennsylvania College of Technology, joined the PSEA looking for educational resources and career development help. She's been disturbed by the recent surge in her union's use of dues money to conduct political activities.

From PSEA's political endorsements in its dues-funded magazine The Voice for Education, to the National Education Association's (NEA) $500,000 donation to a political superPAC airing commercials in support of Gov.-elect Tom Wolf, her unions seemed more interested in politics and power than the needs of their members.

Then, just before Election Day, Trometter opened a letter that took things to a personal level.

The letter, addressed to her husband, said it would be “nearly inconceivable” for an educator to support Gov. Corbett and that for anyone who cares about students, “Tom Wolf is the only choice for Governor.”

This language was aggravating to Trometter, who did not plan to vote for Wolf. Worse, the letter went on to tell her husband, “Please join Mary in voting for Tom Wolf for Governor.” It was signed by PSEA President Michael J. Crossey and NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia.

Incensed, Trometter decided to do something to stop the union from misusing her dues money.

The fact is, the letter violated Pennsylvania law. Section 1701 of the Public Employe Relations Act states: “No employe organization shall make any contribution out of the funds of the employe organization either directly or indirectly to any political party or organization or in support of any political candidate for public office.”

This law has been in effect for decades, but the government hasn't enforced it. As a consequence, PSEA leaders have grown more and more aggressive until they finally stepped over the line.

Trometter, with help from the Fairness Center, filed a charge with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board to stop PSEA and NEA leaders from using membership dues for their own political gain and to clarify the limits on how union dues can be spent in politics.

Now the PSEA is starting to change its tune. Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the PSEA, says it sent a similar letter to 20,000 other households and that it's apologized to 30 members who, like Trometter, found the mailing in extremely bad taste. According to Keever, “We won't be doing it again.”

But an apology and a pledge to change its ways does not address the legality of its actions.

PSEA leaders' public response is that communications with members and their families are exempt from any restrictions. This does not address the fundamental legal issue: Pennsylvania law contains a blanket prohibition on using dues money to support political candidates.

It shouldn't be up to PSEA leaders to decide which laws they obey and which ones they ignore — ultimately, that question is for the courts.

David R. Osborne is general counsel for the Fairness Center, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm with offices in Harrisburg and King of Prussia.

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