Following Tracey Gordon’s Democratic primary upset of longtime Register of Wills Ron Donatucci earlier this year, the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge is offering to protect employees at the patronage-laden office from political firings under the incoming administration if they start paying dues to the union.
Lodge 5 president John McNesby, speaking with about a dozen of the office’s employees at a meeting Tuesday evening in the union’s Northeast Philadelphia headquarters, joked that the only way Gordon won’t become the new register in January is if she is hit by a bus before then.
“Short of that, you’re stuck with her,” McNesby told the employees. “Those that want to be stuck with us, you’re more than welcome.”
A political outsider who had previously worked for the city commissioners, Gordon shocked the local political world when she unseated Donatucci, a South Philly Democratic ward leader and 40-year incumbent. She has no Republican opponent in the Nov. 5 election.
Some employees fear that Gordon will clean house when she takes office, since many employees are loyal to Donatucci and other party bigwigs. But Mustafa Rashed, a spokesperson for Gordon’s transition team, said that’s not the case.
“It’s way too early to speculate on that. The plan is to evaluate every position in the office, every function, and make sure that it’s providing core services to the citizens of Philadelphia,” Rashed, president and CEO of the lobbying firm Bellevue Strategies, said on Wednesday. “Tracey supports their collective bargaining rights and looks forward to working with the employees regardless of what they decide.”
The row office, which has a $4.8 million budget and handles marriages and estates as well as wills, is a product of Philadelphia’s status as the only Pennsylvania jurisdiction that is both a city and county. The roughly 70 employees are political appointees who serve at will, meaning they are not part of the civil service system and can be fired without cause by the independently elected register at any time.
Almost all have political sponsors who recommended their hirings, and many are Democratic ward leaders or committee members themselves. Donatucci, who makes $131,000 per year, wears the patronage label with pride, insisting his office works more efficiently than other agencies.
“I have nothing against civil service, but everyone in this office works,” he told The Inquirer in 2015, “and I’m the Civil Service Commission when they don’t work."
Although they serve at will and do not pay FOP dues, the office’s employees have been represented by the police union in collective bargaining since 1984. The strange arrangement resulted from a deal Donatucci struck with former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, according to McNesby.
McNesby said that after some employees asked to join the union following Gordon’s victory, the FOP researched what it could do for them and discovered that a Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board ruling following the Rizzo-Donatucci deal allows the union to represent the employees in termination disputes.
That means employees who contest their firings will be able to fight back in arbitration proceedings instead of having to sue the office or the city. The arbitration format is friendly to union-backed employees: Police officers win upward of 90% of their cases against the city, McNesby said.
But the FOP won’t offer its services free. Employees will have to sign cards authorizing the union to take dues out of their paycheck, likely 1% of their salaries, McNesby said.
“Those that sign that card have full protection, and those that don’t have none,” McNesby told the employees at the meeting. “And believe me, I answer my phone seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”
Steve Sannini, an employee leading the unionization effort, told McNesby that about 60 workers have already indicated they would join the union, and others may sign up as well.
Sannini said some employees are warning colleagues not to join the union, and he said he suspected one of them had been promised a managerial job in Gordon’s administration.
“He shouldn’t threaten anyone with retaliation about joining any union,” Sannini said at the meeting, without naming the other employee.
Rashed said Gordon was not involved in any efforts to stop the workers from joining the FOP.
“That to me sounds like scuttlebutt,” he said. “There’s no one in this town ever that will get in trouble for trying to unionize.”
McNesby said employees who are worried about losing their jobs should join the FOP as soon as possible because they won’t be able to get union representation if they weren’t paying dues at the time of their firing.
“You’re either protected or you’re not,” he said. “It’s like going out with your high school girlfriend.”