With an important court date looming, the village of North Riverside’s attempt to privatize its fire department got a bit more complicated last week when the Illinois Labor Relations Board (ILRB) issued a complaint against the village, charging that it failed or refused to bargain in good faith with the firefighters’ union and retaliated against union employees who engaged in protected union activities.
Melissa Mlynski, executive director of the Illinois Labor Relations Board notified the village on Dec. 8 that it had 15 days to file an answer to the complaint. The matter will be taken up at a hearing in the future.
In the meantime, both the village and firefighters’ union will appear in Cook County Circuit Court on Dec. 18. North Riverside officials hope that Judge Diane Larsen will rule that the village’s contract with the firefighters’ union, which expired April 30, has terminated.
The village filed a lawsuit seeking a ruling on the matter of the contract’s validity on Sept. 12.
A judge invalidating the contract, the village says, would clear the way for hiring Paramedic Services of Illinois (PSI) to take over fire operations for the village. The company has provided paramedic services for the village for nearly three decades.
The village contends it needs to privatize the department in order to get out from under a large and growing pension burden. North Riverside says such a move would save the village $700,000 annually.
The union argues that the contract is still valid and that language in the contract clearly prohibits the village from laying off firefighters and privatizing the department while negotiations are still pending. The village claims that contract talks are at an impasse; the union denies that contention.
On Sept. 18, North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714 filed a demand for arbitration with the Illinois Labor Relations Board. The board approved that demand for arbitration and one brief session has already been held. The next arbitration date has been set for Jan. 22, though that could change depending on what the judge rules on Dec. 18.
The union believes that arbitration is the proper venue for hashing out differences between the village and firefighters.
J. Dale Berry, the local counsel for the firefighters’ union, said the ILRB complaint issued Monday bolsters hat contention.
“It adds more weight to the argument that the Labor Relations Board has jurisdiction over this, not the circuit court,” Berry said.
The complaint, said Berry, also undercuts the village’s claims that there are no facts in dispute and that its lawsuit should be a simple administrative judgment. The village claims in its lawsuit that it had bargained in good faith and had participated in several negotiating sessions with the union before declaring an impasse.
But the complaint filed Monday states that the village failed to respond to union requests to negotiate a new contract until after the village announced publicly it would seek to have PSI take over fire operations.
On June 16, Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. issued a letter to residents announcing that proposed partnership with PSI “to include fire protection services and prevent layoffs.” The village and union didn’t sit down for their first negotiating session until June 24 and reportedly gave the union a take-it-or-leave-it proposal for firefighters to resign their positions with the village and become employees of PSI.
Firefighters refused to accept the proposal.
The complaint also alleges that Fire Chief Brian Basek denied personal and vacation day requests to union officials, including union President Rick Urbinati, Vice President Chris Kribales, Treasurer David Rajk and Union Steward Jason Williams in the wake of that negotiating session. In the past, the complaint states, such requests were granted routinely.
The complaint alleges that the chief’s actions were taken “to retaliate against public employees because they engaged in protected, concerted and union activity.”