By Bob Uphues
A Cook County judge has punted on the question of whether the village of North Riverside has the right to summarily terminate its contract with union firefighters and replace them with private firm.
On Thursday afternoon, Judge Diane Larsen also ensured the question won't be decided at the circuit court level. A hearing whose outcome might have set a precedent for Illinois labor law instead lasted all of five minutes, with Larsen ruling the circuit court had no jurisdiction over the matter.
Instead, Larsen stated, the Illinois Labor Relations Board should be the venue where the village should have made its case before turning to the courts.
"There must be an exhaustion of remedies, and that has not occurred," Larsen said.
The village had filed its suit seeking termination of its contract with the union in September 2014.
Burt Odelson, the attorney representing the village of North Riverside, disagreed with Larsen's ruling, claiming the circuit court does have jurisdiction to make rulings on contracts.
Odelson said he would file a notice of appeal of Larsen's decision regarding the jurisdictional question on Friday and ask the Illinois Court of Appeals for an expedited briefing schedule.
"All I'm asking them to do is to say the [circuit] court has jurisdiction to state whether it's a valid contract," Odelson said. "I think [Larsen] was incredibly wrong by not hearing the case."
It's unclear how quickly the appellate court will take up the matter. But looming in the future for the village is an appearance with the firefighters union before the Illinois Labor Relations Board in mid-December.
That hearing will address an unfair labor practice complaint filed against the village in December 2014, alleging that village officials failed to bargain in good faith on a new union contract following the expiration of the prior contract at the end of April 2014.
That complaint also alleged that the village retaliated against union employees who engaged in protected union activities.
The village insists it did bargain in good faith and that the two sides reached an impasse in negotiations, which led to the village's decision to seek unilateral termination of its contract with union firefighters and replace them with employees from Paramedic Services of Illinois (PSI).
Another matter the village faces is contract arbitration, which Odelson insists is moot.
"We did go to the table; we reached an impasse. We declared the contract is over," Odelson said. "We went to the table, we're not going to the table [again]."
However, a ruling made by Larsen last December would appear to argue against that interpretation. Larsen in December 2014 denied a motion by the village to delay contract arbitration and sent the matter to the Illinois Labor Relations Board.
An arbitrator was chosen and both sides appeared before him in January. The village participated in the arbitration hearing under protest. Odelson at that time filed motions with the arbitrator to both stay arbitration and to dismiss it.
Arbitrator Robert Brookins put the arbitration proceedings on on hold pending a decision by the circuit court, but he didn't dismiss them.
Now that Larsen has ruled she doesn't have jurisdiction, the village must engage in the arbitration process, which is spelled out by state law, said J. Dale Berry, the attorney for North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714.
"They wanted the court to approve their construct of [Illinois labor law] and to terminate interest arbitration, the contract and the employees and to substitute them with PSI," Berry said. "Now what's in place is mandatory language in the [Illinois Labor Relations] act.