It’s been nearly a year since the village of North Riverside filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court asking a judge to rule that the village contract with the firefighters’ union was terminated, allowing North Riverside to move ahead with a plan to privatize firefighting services.

In June the village’s attorney, Burt Odelson, succeeded in getting Judge Diane Larsen to set a date to rule on the village motion for summary judgment. That hearing has been set for Sept. 9 at the Richard J. Daley Center in Chicago.

“Either we’ll have a decision that day, or we’ll argue [the case] and have a decision very shortly after,” Odelson said.

In the meantime, however, the firefighters’ union has filed a counter claim against the village, arguing that any attempt to privatize the department runs afoul of the Illinois constitution.

Odelson called the counter claim “just another delaying tactic” by the union, which has succeeded in dragging out the lawsuit for 11 months. Odelson also called the counter claim “illegal” since the firefighter union didn’t first file a motion for leave to file a counter claim before filing it on July 24.

The union has since filed a motion for leave to file. That motion will be considered on Aug. 26.

Attorneys for the firefighters are using as the basis for their argument the pension protection clause of the state constitution, which in May was reinforced by the Illinois Supreme Court. At that time, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling overturning a pension reform law passed by the Illinois General Assembly and signed by Gov. Pat Quinn.

Regardless of the state’s ability to afford its pension obligations, the court ruled, the Illinois constitution expressly forbids state pension benefits that have been agreed to by contract to be “diminished or impaired.”

Attorneys J. Dale Berry and Robin Burroughs argue in their July 24 circuit court filing on behalf of North Riverside Firefighters Union 2714 that the village of North Riverside’s action not only seeks to diminish their clients’ contractually agreed to pension benefits, the village seeks to eliminate them completely.

Late last year, the village of North Riverside formally terminated all of its firefighters, though they remain on the job since the village’s lawsuit has not been resolved yet by the court. 

“The village is saying they’re abolishing the fire department, so the pension benefits will be frozen,” Berry said. “That makes what they’re doing unconstitutional.”

The counter claim asks Judge Larsen to rule that the village’s plan to terminate its union firefighters and outsource firefighting services as unconstitutional and to dismiss the village’s lawsuit.

Odelson said what the village seeks to accomplish has nothing to do with the state’s pension protection clause. Such a ruling in favor of the union, said Odelson, would “give a union a life contract, that you can never lay off or terminate anyone. It’s ludicrous.” 

In the meantime, the Illinois Labor Relations Board continues to wait on moving forward with contract arbitration between the two sides until the circuit court case has been settled.

North Riverside’s firefighters have been working without a contract since April 30, 2014. That summer, Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. announced his plan to use Paramedic Services of Illinois (PSI) to take over firefighting services for the village. PSI has served as the village’s paramedic vendor for almost 30 years.

After a number of contract negotiating sessions in late summer 2014, the village declared an impasse, said its contract with firefighters was no longer valid and filed suit to have a judge rule it could unilaterally terminate its union contract, despite no strike/no lockout language.

The union contends the village never sought to negotiate in good faith and already had made up its mind to privatize the fire department. It filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the village in response in addition to invoking arbitration. Those matters are still pending. 

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