A state labor arbitrator has denied the village of North Riverside’s request to hold a separate hearing to determine whether it has the right to terminate the expired contract it has with union firefighters, a decision which finally may force the village to negotiate a new agreement to end a more than five-year impasse.

In his ruling issued Aug. 28, arbitrator Robert Brookins concluded that if the village wanted to propose terminating the contract or offer a zero-year contract as its final offer to the union, it would have to do so during the traditional final-offer hearing, where both sides present their final offers to the arbitrator.

In such hearings, the arbitrator selects one of the offers – the arbitrator doesn’t craft a “compromise” offer – which typically forces both sides to make reasonable offers. Forced to make an offer so radical as proposing termination of the contract, village negotiators now hope they can hammer out a new deal and avoid a final-offer hearing completely.

“I think we’re at a point where five and a half years is long enough,” said Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. “I think the residents, the board and the union want to sit down and get a contract and move forward.”

Both sides are scheduled to hold a formal negotiation session early next week.

“It’s both in the union’s and in the [village] board’s interest to put this to rest and get an agreement,” Hermanek said.

Hermanek said he hoped negotiations would result in a new union contract that would stretch through 2021 or 2022 in order to avoid having to enter into negotiations over a new contract immediately.

Chris Kribales, president of North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714, said the union had been confident it would prevail on the question of the village request for a separate hearing on contract termination and expressed optimism that the two sides might be able to reach an agreement.

“I believed the ruling was going to come out this way,” Kribales said. “I think we’re moving the right way, finally. I’m hoping this [negotiating session] is different.”

If the two sides are able to reach a new agreement, it would end a protracted battle over the future of the firefighters’ union in North Riverside. In 2014, Hermanek proposed privatizing firefighting services by hiring the village’s paramedic contractor to provide replacements for the union members as a way to eliminate future pension obligations.

After briefly entering into contract negotiations with the union and declaring an impasse, the village filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court, seeking a ruling from a judge allowing the village to terminate the union contract and the firefighters.

In response, the union filed a demand for arbitration with the Illinois Labor Relations Board, which held off on the process until the courts determined whether the village had a right to unilaterally terminate the union contract.

The Illinois Supreme Court in January 2018 denied the village’s request that they examine an appellate court ruling affirming that the village could not unilaterally terminate the union contract.

Arbitration resumed last summer with the village requesting a separate hearing on the contract termination issue before commencing with a final-offer hearing. After more than a year’s wait, Brookins denied that request, saying he “perceives no clear and present procedural risk of prejudice to the village by presenting its contractual termination proposal during the normal final-offer proceedings.