Employees in Philadelphia’s Register of Wills Office, with the backing of the local Democratic Party boss, are asking the Fraternal Order of Police to unionize the entire workforce to save their jobs.
It hasn’t mattered much in the last four decades, but Register of Wills Ron Donatucci, the longtime don of patronage, lost his bid for an 11th four-year term in last month’s primary. Workers worry that the winner, Tracey Gordon, may throw them out when she takes over.
All 80 positions in the office are at-will, meaning that workers can be let go at any time by the register, an independently elected official. They are not subject to strict civil service firing rules, and do not have the protections that are normal in a union contract.
Gordon, a former deputy city commissioner, won the Democratic primary with 71,000 votes, nearly 7,000 more than the incumbent. No Republican ran for register of wills. So Gordon will assume office in January unless an independent qualifies for the general election ballot and wins, an unlikely prospect.
She will take over the Democratic Party’s bastion of patronage, where nearly every employee has a political sponsor. Her plans for personnel — or anything, for that matter — are unclear. She has not spoken publicly or been available for an interview since her victory.
Usually heads of independently elected row offices bring in their own people. Employees in the office don’t want that to happen.
“We all want job security,” said Steve Sannini, the leader of the unionizing effort.
Party boss Bob Brady, who is working to help them find union representation, said the office is “a great example of how good patronage can be.”
“You never get an automated response,” he said. “You always get a live person who is courteous.”
More important, he said, office staffers have been there for decades and have institutional knowledge on the intricacies of probating wills, maintaining estate records, issuing marriage licenses, and collecting inheritance taxes.
“I think it would be a mistake to come in and fire people,” Brady said.
The party chairman and office employees are pushing for membership in FOP Lodge 5 because they technically have their foot in the door with that union.
In 1984, sheriff’s deputies and Register of Wills employees voted for the FOP to represent them instead of AFSCME District Council 33. But the register of wills workers never paid dues and have only been represented by the police union in wage negotiations with the city.
“It’s limited to that,” said John McNesby, president of Lodge 5. “They are at-will employees. We would have to see if we can represent them" beyond that.
Sannini said employees in the office would be willing to pay dues and do whatever it takes to be fully unionized and protected.
It’s unclear, though, what that process would be and whether current employees could be grandfathered into a contract. McNesby said he has to talk to his attorney about options and whether they are worth pursuing.
Donatucci has long been proud of his patronage haven. In an interview a few years ago, he said: “I’m the Civil Service Commission when they don’t work.”
He said he rarely fires people. “They all love me,” he said this week.
Donatucci said he is letting the workers take the lead on unionizing.
“They’re just concerned about their jobs,” he said. “They don’t want to get caught in the politics of it, even though they may have gotten their job that way.”
Gordon said Monday that she was going on vacation and referred questions to her attorney, Vivienne Crawford.
“The only thing I can say is that this is not surprising,” Crawford said. She declined to comment further.
Brady said that if the FOP option doesn’t work out, he will ask AFSCME District Council 47 if leaders there will take the Register of Wills employees. But then he said the entire issue might be moot.