By Bob Uphues
Next stop for the village of North Riverside and its union firefighters: either the negotiating table or an appearance before a labor arbitrator.
The village ran out of legal avenues to force the unilateral termination of union firefighters when the Illinois Supreme Court on Jan. 22 announced that it had denied North Riverside's petition to appeal an appellate court ruling upholding an Illinois Labor Relations Board decision on the matter.
Back in September 2017, the Illinois Court of Appeals upheld the labor board's ruling that the village had committed an unfair labor practice by seeking to terminate its contract with union firefighters while that contract was subject to arbitration.
Village Attorney Burt Odelson, however, convinced officials to petition the Illinois Supreme Court to hear the case, believing the appellate court ruling created "significant constitutional issues."
The Supreme Court, apparently, disagreed by refusing the case.
"It's really not surprising," said J. Dale Berry, the attorney representing North Riverside Firefighters Union 2714. "Now they'll have to comply with the order of the labor board to uphold their decision and proceed to interest arbitration."
Arbitration had been on hold since January 2015 while the village pursued all legal channels to force out union firefighters and replace them with a private company.
The village filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court in September 2014, asking a judge to rule on whether North Riverside could summarily terminate its union contract, which had expired April 30, 2015. The village claimed contract negotiations were at an impasse, giving them the right to get out from under the contract.
Police officers and firefighters operate under no-strike/no-lockout contracts since they provide critical public safety services. Without the recourse to strike, when firefighter and police contracts expire they remain in force until a new deal can be negotiated or settled in arbitration.
When the village filed its initial lawsuit, firefighters invoked their right to arbitration. The village responded by issuing termination notices to firefighters, though deferring action while the legal action was pending.
The village lawsuit would have required a judge essentially to overturn decades of accepted interpretation of the Illinois Labor Act.
Union leaders and village administrators have been meeting informally for many months, but those talks will now turn into serious negotiations or both sides may seek to have matters settled by an arbitrator.
The core issues that prompted the 2014 lawsuit remain the same. Firefighters want a deal they believe is fair to union members and maintains staffing levels and village officials want to contain costs, particularly with respect to pensions and overtime costs.
Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. said he hoped both sides could work out a deal and avoid arbitration.
"I think it would behoove them to sit down and do something realistic instead of rolling the dice in arbitration," Hermanek said, referring to the labor board's ruling that an arbitrator might, in fact, allow the union contract to be terminated.
"They have a lot more to lose than we do," Hermanek said.
Berry said the union "is always interested in" getting a contract negotiated outside of arbitration.
In the meantime, there are signs that the hard feelings between union firefighters and the department's new command staff have eased. And the village is poised to hire two new firefighters – the first such hires since late 2013 or early 2014.
Since 2014, six firefighters have left the department – four via retirement and two who were fired for cause. None has been replaced so far. However, Hermanek indicated that two probationary firefighters are likely to be sworn in at the village board's next meeting on Feb. 5.