In the weeks since a Black woman defeated the long-time incumbent in the race for the Register of Wills office, the employees of that office have contacted two unions about getting their protection.
The employees say their interest in unionizing after decades of being at-will employees has nothing to do with Tracey Gordon’s race.
But others don’t see it that way.
State Sen. Anthony Williams, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for mayor in the same primary election, called the unionization effort an “absolute insult” and an example of unconscious bias that would strip away power from an African American who was chosen by Democratic primary voters.
“It’s out of the playbook,” Williams said. “That is, that people from another community can do what apparently you can’t do from your community. I can’t say what that is other than unconscious bias.”
Linn Washington, a professor of journalism at Temple University who previously covered city politics for decades, said the timing of the push to unionize was “suspicious” considering workers were content to remain at-will employees for decades under Ronald Donatucci.
“It’s not surprising that there’d be an effort to protect these predominantly white workers,” he said.
Vivienne Crawford, an attorney for Gordon’s campaign, called the situation “most egregious” but declined to comment further.
Donatucci has been Register of Wills for 40 years.
Because employees in the office are not hired through the civil service system and are not members of a union, Donatucci has had full authority over who is hired and who is fired.
The office had 71 employees in 2018. Recent demographic data from the City Controller indicates their demographics do not match the demographics of the city: 62% of employees are white and 27% of employees are Black, while the city’s population is 35% white and 44% Black.
The office currently has 83 employees; demographic data is not yet available.
Donatucci did not return a call seeking comment about his hiring practices during the past four decades. But Steve Sannini, a Register of Wills Office employee who is leading the unionization effort, acknowledged that the office “indirectly” is an office of patronage positions.
And Philadelphia Democratic Committee Chairman Bob Brady defended patronage in the office, saying it has led to quality services there.
Even though the committee did not endorse Gordon in the primary election, Brady said he supported her and did not take sides in the employees’ quest for unionization, which he believed was motivated by concerns over job security.
“People are concerned about that,” he said referring to jobs, “I don’t think it’s racial at all.”
Brady said Gordon told him she was not interested in replacing all the employees.
“As far as blanketly just firing people, she said she’s not doing that,” Brady said. “And there’s a lot of people there with institutional knowledge that she says she even needs.”
Sannini said employees’ fears about job security come from comments Gordon made on the campaign trail, including an alleged pledge to “clean the swamp.”
“They have families, they have obligations just like anyone else that has a job,” he said. “No one wants to be dismissed for no reason.”
Employees at the Register of Wills Office have contacted the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5 and AFSCME District Council 47 about representation.
Sannini said employees at the Register of Wills Office have been linked to the police union since 1984, when they chose to break away from AFSCME District Council 33. The FOP has only assisted the Register of Wills employees with collective bargaining since that time and the employees have never paid dues. That has left employees in limbo about their relationship to the FOP and whether the police union can fully represent them.
“We don’t know that yet, that’s why we’re in contact with the FOP to find out whether or not they can fully represent the employees under unionization,” Sannini said.
Michael Neilon, a spokesman for the FOP, said in an email that the police union was looking into the issue but declined to comment further. John McNesby, the president of the union, was “unavailable to speak on this,” Neilon said.
Fred Wright, president of AFSCME District Council 47, which represents white-collar workers, said employees of the Register of Wills office contacted his union about protection and he didn’t know why they decided to do it now.
“Evidently, they’re fearful of losing their jobs,” he said.
Pete Matthews, president of AFSCME District Council 33, which represents blue-collar workers, did not respond to a request for comment.