Professor charges that Pa. union improperly used member dues to promote Wolf's candidacy

Government And Institutions Associated Press

A college professor is challenging the use of her union dues to promote the gubernatorial campaign of Democratic Gov.-elect Tom Wolf, adding fuel to a simmering legislative debate over dues deductions from public employees' paychecks.

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Mary Trometter, an assistant professor of culinary arts at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, filed a complaint Tuesday with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. She alleges the state's largest teachers' union violated a law that says union funds cannot be used to support political candidates.

Trometter objected to a personalized letter sent shortly before the election to her husband by the Pennsylvania State Education Association and its affiliate, the National Education Association, urging him to "join Mary" in voting for Wolf. She said she didn't support Wolf and never indicated a preference to the union.

The November edition of the PSEA magazine, which featured numerous pro-Wolf articles, similarly violated the state's Public Employee Relations Act, she said in her complaint.

Trometter's attorney, David Osborne, said the law is not being enforced. Through a spokeswoman, the labor board declined to comment on the case.

PSEA spokesman Wythe Keever said Pennsylvania's campaign finance laws, which have evolved in response to recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, allow unions to privately communicate with members and their families on any subject.

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"We're confident we have legal authority to send the letter," he said.

But the union apologized for the tone of the letter to Trometter's husband, and Keever acknowledged that similar letters were sent to other PSEA members' spouses. He said he did not know how many letters were sent but that the union had received "a small number of complaints" about the letter to Trometter.

"We've apologized for the way the letter was worded, and we've told those members that we won't use this approach again. We regret that any of our members were offended by this," he said.

The dispute surfaced amid a lull in the legislative debate over automatic deductions of union dues from public employees' paychecks and what activities those deductions pay for.

Osborne works for The Fairness Center, a nonprofit law firm that shares a Harrisburg address with the Commonwealth Foundation, a libertarian think tank and advocate for "paycheck protection" legislation to halt the deduction of dues for political activity from public employees' paychecks. Opposed by organized labor, the business-backed legislation would limit union deductions to the cost of representing employees.