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Paycheck protection to Mary’s Law: Lawmakers get personal

By   /   December 16, 2014  /   No Comments

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

Republicans in the Pennsylvania General Assembly have given paycheck protection legislation a face as they try again to pass the controversial measure.

The lawmakers call it “Mary’s Law” after Mary Trometter, a college professor whose husband received a letter from two teachers’ unions urging him to join his wife in voting for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tom Wolf in the Nov. 4 election.

Although Trometter is a member of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, she took issue with the unions’ assumption she was voting for Wolf, and she filed a complaint with the state labor relations board against the PSEA and National Education Association. The situation “crystallized” the need for paycheck protection, Republican senators said in a memo seeking support of the legislation.

“Mary neither authorized the use of her name, nor was she voting for Mr. Wolf. Yet her dues money — collected by the taxpayers and exploited for political purposes — was used against her wishes and against her will,” the memo states.

Image courtesy of The Commonwealth Foundation

MARY’S LAW: College professor Mary Trometter is putting her name behind paycheck protection legislation as Pennsylvania Republicans try again to push through a bill.

The namesake law would force public-sector unions to collect their own political money while still allowing the state to collect the fair-share portion of union dues — money used for collective bargaining purposes, grievances and arbitration. There are no restrictions now, though the deductions are subject to collective bargaining.

Republicans argue the system improperly mixes politics with public resources. Trometter doesn’t mind her dues being used for normal union operations, but she takes issue with the political aspect, she said.

“To just assume that everybody is thinking the same way in regard to politics is not acceptable,” Trometter said. “I’m sure most teachers would agree that they don’t want their students to all think the same and act the same way.”

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, called the renaming of the legislation a “gimmick.” He noted that naming legislation after an individual is often reserved for “more significant” and often “tragic” occasions, such as Megan’s Law, which makes information about registered sex offenders available to the public and is named for a 7-year-old girl who was raped and killed in 1994.

Paycheck protection doesn’t rise to that level, Costa said.

“At the end of the day, whatever you call it, it’s still paycheck protection. It’s harmful to employees and labor folks in this commonwealth, and that’s the bottom line,” Costa said, indicating his caucus wouldn’t support the measure.

A PSEA spokesman did not return a message seeking comment, but the union has already apologized for the letter and said it won’t use the approach again.

Trometter is still pursuing her complaint, said David Osborne, an attorney with The Fairness Center, which is representing the assistant professor of culinary arts at Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport.

The connection between Trometter and paycheck protection, though, isn’t exactly apparent. The NEA and PSEA, after all, could have sent a similar letter, even with paycheck protection in place. The connection, Osborne said, hinges on the issue of “protection” for union members, as well as non-members.

“There’s really no safeguard to protect them against the political power of the unions. This is a protective mechanism,” he said.

The main sponsor of “Mary’s Law,” state Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, said Trometter’s story also illustrates how union members must contribute to an organization without having a say about how it is eventually used.

“By in large, many, many people that are members of unions could disagree with where their money goes, but they’ve been contributing without the ability to help direct where the money goes,” he said.

About a dozen Republican senators have signed on as co-sponsors so far, including Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman.

Corman expects a vote on the legislation sometime this session, though he said it’s too early to say when it could happen.

“Obviously it’s something that a lot of members of our caucus are passionate about,” he said, even indicating he’s optimistic about bipartisan support.

That’s probably wishful thinking.

Democratic lawmakers opposed even a scaled-back version of the legislation that would have applied just to public school employees. That legislation failed in the last session, though ardent supporters of paycheck protection vowed to resurrect it.

Union leaders from both the private and public sector have also decried the legislation as merely a union-busting tool that will hurt everyday workers. They also point to the fact it costs the state almost nothing to collect the money.

Eichelberger thinks push-back has muddied a situation about ethics, not cost. Ultimately, he thinks allowing the deduction of the fair-share fee to fund union operations — but not political activity — is a “very fair” approach.

Trometter says she’s happy to lend her name to the cause.

“Maybe we’ll see some reform.”

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Andrew formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.