By Andrew Staub
for The Pennsylvania Independent
HARRISBURG PA – The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board has punted a complaint about a political letter sent by state and national teachers unions last fall, saying it’s up to Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office to decide what to do about it.
In a July 21 (2015; Tuesday) order, the board said its rules and regulations call for it to refer allegations of improper political contributions to the state’s top prosecutor.
That leaves Kane to decide to do with the complaint from Mary Trometter, an assistant professor of culinary arts at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport and longtime member of the National Education Association (NEA) and the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA). She has accused the unions of violating state law after using dues money to send letters to educators’ family urging them to vote for now-Gov. Tom Wolf in November.
Locally, the Pottsgrove Education Association, representing employees in the Pottsgrove School District, and the Spring-Ford Area Education Association, representing employees in the Spring-Ford Area district, both are PSEA and NEA affiliates. The Federation of Pottstown Teachers is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, which is not named in the complaint.
“Someone must stand up for union members like me who want nothing to do with union politics,” Trometter said in statement issued Tuesday (July 28). “That’s why I’m asking Attorney General Kane to enforce the law and protect teachers from being forced to participate in someone else’s political agenda.”
Trometter’s husband received one of the letters. She’s represented by attorney David Osborne of The Fairness Center, a public-interest law firm that handles cases of public employees aggrieved by unions.
The unions have skirted a state law that has gone unenforced for four decades, Osborne said. The state’s Public Employee Labor Relations Act states that “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.”
The Fairness Center will appeal the board’s decision to refer the complaint to Kane. In the meantime, the law firm is putting pressure on the attorney general.
“PSEA and NEA leaders are ignoring the law to advance their political agenda at members’ expense,” Osborne said in a statement. “The question is not whether the law has been broken – the PSEA already admitted spending union members’ dues for political campaigning. The question is whether those charged with enforcing the law will do so.”
It’s unclear how Kane will handle the complaint. Sadie Martin, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, said the office had not yet had a chance to review the referral.
The NEA paid for the letter through its Advocacy Fund, a political action committee propped up by the union’s treasury.
Trometter’s complaint also targeted a PSEA publication called “The Voice,” paid for by general treasury funds. The November issue of the magazine urged union members to vote for Wolf.
Neither the PSEA or NEA immediately returned messages seeking comment about the case going to Kane.
Previously, the PSEA has argued it can legally communicate with its members and their immediate family about political issues and that the letters did not amount to a prohibited contribution. At the same time, the PSEA has stressed it is sensitive to complaints about the letters, sent to about 20,000 households.
“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,” union spokesman David Broderic said after Trometter filed the complaint last year.
- Pennsylvania Independent is a public interest journalism project dedicated to promoting open, transparent, and accountable state government. It reports on the activities of agencies, bureaucracies, and politicians in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Photo from Google Images