Despite the fact that both sides appear to remain far apart and a resolution is still beyond the horizon, North Riverside’s mayor and the leadership of the North Riverside Firefighters’ Union have been meeting informally over the past couple of months, trying to find something that resembles common ground.
Mayor Hubert Hermanek said last week that he has met with the union’s president, Rick Urbinati, eight times in recent months.
“We’re inching away,” said Hermanek. “We’re hoping to get something done. We’re not going to be saving as much [money] as I’d like to, but we’re trying to get something.”
It’s been 18 months since Hermanek rolled out a plan to privatize the village’s fire protection services, where union firefighters would be phased out and replaced with paramedic/firefighters supplied by Paramedic Services of Illinois (PSI).
Hermanek had hoped to save hundreds of thousands of dollars in mounting pension obligations with the move. The deal also would have eliminated a source of aggravation for Hermanek and the majority VIP Party, who the firefighters’ union publicly opposed in the 2013 and 2015 elections. The firefighters’ union has also filed numerous grievances against the village over the years.
In mid-December, Hermanek and North Riverside Finance Director Sue Scarpiniti were called to testify in front of an Illinois Labor Relations Board arbitrator as part of an unfair labor practice complaint lodged by the union against the village related to the privatization plan.
Hermanek, who was grilled by attorneys for about three hours, characterized the four-day hearing as “combative and unpleasant.”
It’s unclear when the arbitrator will issue a recommended solution to the complaint, which alleged that the village did not and had no plans to negotiate a new union contract in good faith.
It could take months.
In the meantime, the village is waiting to hear from the Illinois Court of Appeals, which is considering an appeal filed by the village in the wake of a Cook County Circuit Court judge’s ruling in October that she didn’t have jurisdiction to rule on North Riverside’s lawsuit, which sought to terminate the union contract unilaterally.
As the waiting game continues, Hermanek and Urbinati say they’ll continue to meet to see if there’s some sort of solution that can be reached in order to tamp down the contentious environment that’s existed for more than two years now.
“I’m doing whatever I can to make the peace,” Hermanek said.
What Hermanek would like to do is cut a deal with the union that would allow the village to save money by not replacing three firefighter positions that have become vacant in the past year or so, through one retirement and two terminations.
Hermanek said he’d like to be able to replace those positions with paid-on-call firefighters. Doing so would allow the village to avoid new pension obligations and avoid paying overtime to union firefighters.
“It would save us a ton of money,” Hermanek said.
However, the union’s position, according to their attorney, J. Dale Berry, is that the village is not allowed to staff its fire department — including its paramedics — in any way other than what’s required by state law.
According to Berry, civil service rules were tightened in 2011, upgrading hiring standards for firefighters and paramedics.
“The only way they can staff it is by hiring from a competitive list [of potential employees],” said Berry.
Those rules can be the subject of contract discussions, said Berry, but “they have to negotiate that.”
When the village filed its lawsuit to privatize the department in September 2014, one of the key arguments was that the village ought to be able to terminate its contract with the union unilaterally after reaching an impasse in negotiations.
But with almost every decision in court going against the village during the past 18 months, it appears that the village is extending an olive branch by Hermanek holding informal private talks with union leaders.
Both Urbinati and Berry said that a solution is possible.
“We can settle this in a reasonable way,” Berry said, “but [the village] ha[s] to acknowledge they’re covered by the law.”