By Bob Uphues
North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. said the village will drop its pursuit of privatizing firefighting services through the courts after the Illinois Court of Appeals on Sept. 29 upheld a ruling by the Illinois Labor Relations Board that the village engaged in an unfair labor practice by seeking to unilaterally terminate its contract with union firefighters while that contract was subject to arbitration.
The appeal was effectively North Riverside's last resort in the courts, which for the past three-plus years have systematically ruled against the village's contention that it could terminate the union contract because the two sides had reached an impasse.
"It finally closes the door on this experiment to argue that our contract is null and void," said Chris Kribales, the president of North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714, which represents the village's 12 union firefighters. "It finally puts us back on a level field."
In March, the appellate court had affirmed that the Illinois Labor Relations Board was the proper venue to play out the contract dispute. In 2014, the village had filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court, asking a judge to declare the village could unilaterally terminate the union contract. Judge Diane Larsen ruled she didn't have jurisdiction to make such a ruling.
Now the matter will go before Illinois Labor Relations Board arbitrator, something North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714 had demanded in 2014, shortly after the village had filed its suit in circuit court.
"We're not going to appeal this," Hermanek said of the Sept. 29 appellate court ruling. "It's done. This was the last shoe to drop."
An arbitrator selected to hear the North Riverside matter put the hearing on hold back in January 2015, because of the pending litigation. Now that the litigation has concluded, the arbitrator will resume his role.
Hermanek was philosophical about the failure of the lawsuit, saying, "You don't know 'til you try. Now we'll just move in a different direction."
He added that the latest setback did not mean the village would simply agree to a new union contract in order to end the impasse.
"All options are on the table," said Hermanek. "The only option not being pursued is the litigation."
Hermanek is holding out the slim hope that a labor arbitrator might rule that it can terminate its contract because, if it doesn't, the village would face a devastating financial future.
The appellate court ruling noted that "while the goal of arbitration is to reach an agreement, [the Illinois Labor Relations Act] does not prevent an arbitrator from determining that the circumstances presented justify an award permitting an employer to sever any contractual relationship with the union" and that "the categorical elimination of employment, a [collective bargaining agreement] and every condition thereof falls within the purview of the arbitrator's decision."
While it would seem unlikely that an arbitrator would go to such lengths as to allow the village to terminate its union contract, it's at least possible, the three-judge panel ruled.
"Basically, the ruling dumped everything in the arbitrator's lap," Hermanek said.
The most recent union contract expired on April 30, 2014. Both sides have met during the past year to see if there are areas of common ground as they pursue a new deal. The union wants its staffing levels brought up to pre-2009 numbers, when minimum staffing was set at six firefighters per shift, according to Kribales.
Right now, the department is working three four-firefighter minimum shifts, but only has 11 firefighters to staff them (the 12th firefighter is a day-shift lieutenant). That means even if every shift is fully staffed (and no one takes a day off or calls in sick) the village is paying someone 24 hours of overtime one out of every three shifts, said Kribales.
Hermanek said the village will hire a firefighter to fill a vacancy created by the recent retirement of Firefighter Rick Urbinati. But there's been no promise to add any additional firefighters after that.
"We're basically at an impasse [on staffing levels]," said Hermanek. "The only thing we have is how many people we can hire."
Kribales said hiring just the one firefighter to replace Urbinati, while not enough, will still help.
"That'd be awesome," Kribales said. "It would help immensely."
It's been an expensive detour for the administration, which announced the lawsuit as a way for the village to ultimately save money by eliminating future union pension obligations.
It's unclear exactly how much the village has spent to have its law firm pursue privatization through the courts and in matters before the Illinois Labor Relations Board. The firefighters union estimates the village has spent more than $1 million, while the village has claimed the court action has cost roughly $100,000.
A lawsuit filed in March by a south suburban firefighter sought to force the village to turn over records related to those legal costs. But that lawsuit, filed in the midst of an election campaign, has since been dropped.
The Landmark's analysis of village financial records showed that North Riverside spent more than $800,000 on total legal fees between 2013 and 2016. The privatization effort started in the summer of 2014.
For the three years prior to the 2013-14 fiscal year, the village had never spent more than $76,000 annually for legal services.
This story has been changed to correct the incidence of overtime due to the department having 11 firefighters to staff three four-person shifts.