Pennsylvania’s largest teachers union exploited its members to aid Democrats in the midterm elections and may have broken state law in the process, according to charges filed by a veteran educator.
Pennsylvania College of Technology professor Mary Trometter claims in a state Labor Relations Board complaint that the NEA-affiliated Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) sent mailers endorsing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf to her husband. Wolf beat incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett by 10 points.
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"As a family member of an educator, you know they are devoting their career to helping others … Please join Mary in voting for Tom Wolf for Governor on November 4th," the letter says.
The letter was signed by PSEA president Michael Crossey and NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia, but Trometter, who is a member of the PSEA, said the union’s endorsements did not represent her views. She is now going after the PSEA for violating the Pennsylvania Public Employee Relations Act, which bars employee organizations from giving money"either directly or indirectly to any political party or organization or in support of any political candidate for public office."
"My union dues are paying for this letter," she said. "The union has been very vocal about using dues money for political gain … the fact that my name was exploited and being used to promote their political cause was the last straw."
More than 180,000 educators pay about $500 in dues to PSEA each year. The union dedicates a good deal of that money to politics. It spent $3.76 million on political activities and lobbying between September 2012 and October 2013, according to its most recent federal disclosures.
PSEA and its umbrella organization NEA were heavily involved in the Pennsylvania midterms—though the extent of that spending will not be known until 2015. Watchdog.org reported that NEA’s PAC gave nearly $600,000 to a group dedicated to defeating Corbett, as well as nearly $3 million to the Democratic Governors Association, which contributed heavily in the race. Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank, found that PSEA’s PAC spent nearly $13 million on campaigns between 2007 and October 2014.
Trometter said the union’s focus has shifted since she joined 20 years ago.
"When I joined I looked to the union to network and learn about the craft of teaching, and learn about how the education system works," she said. "Over the years the PSEA and the NEA has departed from its mission and become more political."
She said that the mailer was presumptuous and reduced teachers to political puppets of union leaders. The fact that it was addressed to her own husband "made it a personal issue." The personalized form letter was one of many pro-Wolf mailers sent out by the PSEA during the midterms.
"It should be a members choice in how dues are spent and we need to speak up and take a stand for what’s right," she said.
PSEA did not return request for comment.
Trometter is being represented by the Fairness Center, a non-profit legal watchdog group that has taken action against the PSEA for workers rights violations in the past. Center general counsel David Osborne said that state labor regulators have emboldened unions to ignore Pennsylvania law by failing to enforce the ban on public sector union political donations.
"Public sector unions end up across the bargaining table of elected officials. When a union gets involved to ensure that their people are elected, it’s not collective bargaining. It’s collusion," he said. "This charge is about the misuse of member dues at its core. People like Mary are protected by law and we hope [the case] exposes the PSEA’s conduct and prompts enforcement."