By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
Just days before the Nov. 4 election, leaders from the national and state teachers unions sent a letter to Mary Trometter’s husband, urging him to “Please join Mary in in voting for Tom Wolf for Governor.”
The premature assumption that Trometter, an assistant professor of culinary arts at Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, was voting for the Democratic nominee didn’t make her happy, and she thought it was “weird” the unions would contact her husband, who isn’t a member.
COMPLAINT FILED: A Pennsylvania teacher filed a complaint with the state’s Labor Relations Board over a presumptive letter teachers unions sent her husband.
Trometter initially ripped up the letter and tossed it in the trash, but decided to take her frustrations a step further after taking a closer look at the document.
“I felt like, you know what, this is the last straw. I need to speak out,” said Trometter, who explained she has grown frustrated with her union’s political advocacy.
With help from The Fairness Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm that helps public employees “wronged” by their unions, Trometter on Tuesday filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, alleging the National Education Association and Pennsylvania State Education Association violated state law by using funds to support a political candidate.
The NEA didm’t return a message seeking comment. PSEA spokesman David Broderic said the PSEA can legally communicate with its members and their immediate family about political issues, but acknowledged the union received a “small number” of complaints about the letter and stressed the organization is sensitive to those comments.
“We’ve apologized for the way the letter was worded, and we’ve told those members we won’t use this approach again and we regret that any of our members were offended by this,” Broderic said.
The NEA paid for the letter out of its NEA Advocacy Fund, which OpenSecrets.org describes as a left-leaning super PAC that spends “heavily” against Republicans. NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia and PSEA President Michael Crossey signed the letter, which criticized education funding levels under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who Wolf defeated in the election.
“For everyone in public education who cares about students, who knows the value of a collective voice and a safe retirement, Tom Wolf is the only choice for Governor,” the letter stated. “It’s just as important that every family member of an educator support Tom Wolf too.”
Trometter’s complaint also takes issue with The Voice, a PSEA publication. The November issue of the magazine urged members to vote for Wolf.
David Osborne, a lawyer with The Fairness Center, said the NEA letter and The Voice both run afoul of the state’s Public Employee Labor Relations Act, which states “no employe(e) organization shall make any contribution out of the funds of the employe(e) organization either directly or indirectly to any political party or organization or in support of any political candidate for public office.”
Broderic said the statute relates to dues dollars that would go directly toward a candidate’s campaign or to promote somebody’s candidacy to the general public.
“That’s different than the rules that govern our member-to-member communications,” Broderic said, calling it an “important distinction.”
Osborne, on the other hand, reads the law as a “blanket prohibition” and said the letter and The Voice are indirect contributions to a candidate. He noted his research hasn’t turned up any cases of the law being enforced in more than four decades.
“The PSEA is like a bully who’s never been challenged, so as the years went by and nobody enforced this statute, they grew more and more aggressive,” Osborne said.
That complaint has now been registered with the Labor Relations Board. A spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Industry didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment about Trometter’s complaint.
Ultimately, Trometter said her candidate of choice wasn’t the point. Trometter’s more concerned the NEA and PSEA invoked her name before she even had a chance to cast a ballot.
That letter, its torn edges still apparent after it was fished out of the trash, will now play a large part in her complaint. Trometter won’t stay silent after feeling as if her individual freedoms were trampled, she said.
“I would say that over the last several years, I feel the PSEA’s mission has changed,” Trometter said. “It’s not the same union that I joined 20 years ago.”