By Bob Uphues
A 2014 bid to have a Cook County Circuit Court judge declare the village of North Riverside had a right to unilaterally terminate its contract with union firefighters fizzled on March 15 when the Illinois Court of Appeals upheld the circuit court's ruling that it had no jurisdiction over the matter.
In an eight-page ruling handed down by a panel of three appellate court judges, Justice Terrence J. Lavin wrote that the village's argument that it was merely raising a legal question about its right to end a collectively bargained contract with firefighters was "patently disingenuous."
Rather, the appellate court ruled, the circuit court "properly dismissed the village's complain. As exclusive jurisdiction lies with the [Illinois Labor Relations] Board."
It's not clear exactly whether or when the matter will end up as the subject of binding arbitration in front of the Illinois Labor Relations Board.
But, North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. told the Landmark in a phone interview that the March 15 decision would not be appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court and that the suit filed in Cook County Circuit Court is now dead.
"I really believe this thing should be resolved," Hermanek said.
The village is now pinning its hopes on another case in front of the Illinois Court of Appeals. In July 2016, the Illinois Labor Relations Board voted 4 to 1 in favor of the firefighter union's unfair labor practice complaint, arguing the village had no right to unilaterally terminate its contract with firefighters.
North Riverside appealed that decision and the matter is pending in the Illinois Court of Appeals. It's unclear when a ruling will be handed down, but the case has been fully briefed and both sides are simply awaiting a decision.
"That's their last gasp," said the union's attorney J. Dale Berry.
If that ruling comes down in favor of the firefighters, Berry said the union would ask the labor board to set a date for arbitration, which has been on hold since January 2015.
The union demanded arbitration in September 2014, shortly after the village filed its lawsuit in circuit court. The Illinois Labor Relations Board agreed to the demand, and ground rules for the arbitration process were set at a meeting in January 2015. But the arbitrator assigned to the case held the arbitration in abeyance until all matters before the courts were cleared up.
Hermanek said he'd prefer hammering out a new union agreement with firefighters to arbitration.
"My hope is to sit back down and see if we can move forward," Hermanek said. "But if we can't negotiate, I really don't have much of a choice."
Hermanek wants to limit the number of union firefighter positions because of the pension obligations that were the primary argument for the 2014 fire privatization bid. The department is short three firefighters, but the situation has led to high overtime costs, with union firefighters filling in whenever a shift is short-staffed.
The mayor would like the union to agree to allow the village to hire paid-on-call or contract firefighters to fill the gaps when shifts are short of personnel in order to reduce the overtime burden. The union reportedly has rejected the proposal.
Chris Kribales, president of North Riverside Firefighters Union 2714, said firefighters would agree to allowing paid-on-call or contract firefighters to fill out shifts in return for replacing the village's contract paramedic service with part-timers culled from the department's hiring list.
"You give preference to guys who are on your list already," Kribales said. "It almost becomes a longer probationary period."
Kribales said the part-time ambulance staffing model has been employed by the Bensenville Fire Protection District. According to a help wanted ad from that department last November, part-timers' starting pay is $12.50 per hour.
Despite setback after setback in the courts, Hermanek defended the village's decision to file the suit seeking termination of the union contract, saying that someone had to "take on the unions" in order to control pension obligations. During the 2016-17 fiscal year, police and fire pensions account for about 12 percent of the village's annual operating budget.
"The reason we did it is because the union wouldn't budge or compromise on anything," Hermanek said. "I needed them to work with us and they wouldn't do it. I had no choice."
Kribales said the village rushed to privatize.
"The lawsuit was pushed ahead at a high rate of speed at the front end," Kribales said.
This story has been updated to include comments from the North Riverside Firefighters' Union President Chris Kribales.