January marked the fifth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United v. FEC decision, which lifted many restrictions on corporate spending in politics. President Obama highlighted the anniversary with a statement saying that “it has caused real harm to our democracy” and has opened politics up to a flood of “dark money.” Some of Obama’s biggest supporters — national and state teachers unions — also routinely condemn Citizens United as a threat to free speech.
But when confronted by a legal challenge to their own political “dark money” operation, it turns out those same unions are actually secret admirers of Citizens United.
The National Education Association (NEA) and its affiliate the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) haven’t been shy about their views — well, what they’d like you to think their views are — on Citizens United. As recently as 2013, the NEA sent a letter to the U.S. House warning that the decision was “drowning out the voices of ordinary Americans.” Also in 2013, an NEA spokesperson said it “has twisted and distorted our political system.”
The NEA is even a member of United for the People — a group calling for a constitutional amendment to override the Supreme Court decision. But now, in response to a legal action filed by PSEA member Mary Trometter and the Fairness Center late last year, the unions are hypocritically citing Citizens United to excuse the fact that they misused union members’ dues money on Pennsylvania elections.
Trometter’s legal charge stems from a campaign mailer her husband received from the PSEA just before the November 2014 election. The mailer used her name to urge her husband to vote for then-candidate Tom Wolf. It was paid for by the NEA Advocacy Fund, which itself is funded by union members’ dues.
The problem is, a 45-year-old Pennsylvania law says using dues money to support candidates is illegal.
In 1970, Pennsylvania enacted the Public Employe Relations Act — a law defining how state government would interact with public employees and the unions representing them. One portion of the Act prevents union dues money from being spent in “direct or indirect” support of candidates for political office, a measure that was intended to remove the temptation for government union leaders to influence the political process.
Why is this important? The conflict of interest Governor Wolf currently faces is a good example. He received millions in direct and indirect contributions from government unions whose contracts he is now negotiating. It’s hard to be impartial when you’re negotiating partner got you into office and could be funding your next campaign — that’s why Pennsylvania passed a blanket prohibition against using dues to support candidates.
But laws are worthless if no one is willing to enforce them, and this one hasn’t been enforced in more than four decades.
In response to Trometter’s charge, the PSEA and NEA themselves admit that the election mailer, which they say was sent to about 20,000 Pennsylvanians, was funded by members’ dues. They also admit that their magazine The Voice, which has a circulation of about 180,000 and is available for free online, is funded by union dues, is made available to the public, and advocates for political candidates.
The admissions are notable because Pennsylvania law also says that if dues are used in support of political candidates — whether directly or indirectly — the incidents must be reported to the Labor Relations Board within 90 days. The Fairness Center found that no such reports were filed in 2014, a year when The Voice endorsed Gov. Wolf on its cover.
Worse, no reports were filed in any other year since this provision was enacted in 1970. Incredibly, these unions have been ignoring state political funding laws since their inception — that’s the real “dark money” in Pennsylvania politics.
The courts will eventually decide whether Citizens United excuses their actions — union leaders don’t get to arbitrarily choose which laws they will and will not follow.
Ultimately, the integrity of our legal system must be protected. A valid state law that was put in place to protect the public and educators like Mary Trometter cannot be ignored with impunity.
David R. Osborne is general counsel for The Fairness Center, a nonprofit, public interest law firm with offices in Harrisburg and King of Prussia. For more information, visit http://fairnesscenter.org