By Bob Uphues
It's not just the future of the North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714 that could be at stake when both sides meet again in court on Dec. 18. It could be the future of public employee unions, period.
The village of North Riverside contends that its responsibility to honor the union contract ended when the village declared it to be at an impasse with the firefighters union in September.
That's when the village filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court, asking a judge to declare the contract, which expired on April 30, null and void in order to allow North Riverside to hire Paramedic Services of Illinois (PSI), a private company, to take over firefighting services for the village. The company has provided the village with paramedic services for almost 30 years.
On Dec. 18, Judge Diane Larsen is expected to make a ruling with respect to the village's contention that the contract is terminated. How she will rule is the wild card.
"She may rule or she may take it under advisement," said J. Dale Berry, the local counsel for the firefighters' union. "But we'll get to the merit of the claims."
If Larsen does rule in favor of the village, it could have a monumental effect on how labor contracts with municipalities are interpreted. Language in contracts for police officers and firefighters include no strike, no lockout provisions to allow negotiations and arbitration to occur after contracts expire without putting public safety at risk.
North Riverside itself has clung to that interpretation in the past. The most recent firefighters' contract was approved more than two years after the previous deal expired.
"It's an attractive solution for people looking for easy answers," Berry said of the village's belief that it can unilaterally walk away from contract negotiations by citing an impasse.
North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. said that if the court rules in the village's favor "it would change the whole playing field."
"We remain optimistic that the judge will rule that when a contract expires, it expires," Hermanek said.
Since the village filed its lawsuit on Sept. 12, several things have happened. The firefighters union responded to the suit by filing an unfair labor practice complaint with the Illinois Labor Relations Board and, at the same time, filed a demand for compulsory arbitration.
The Illinois Labor Relations Board agreed with the union's demand for arbitration and chose an arbitrator. The first arbitration session is scheduled for Nov. 24.
Additionally, on Oct. 1 the firefighters' union received word that it would be granted legal assistance from International Association of Firefighters through the union's law firm, Woodley & McGillivary, based in Washington, D.C. That firm's lead counsel in the North Riverside case is Sara Faulman.
On Oct. 30, the village's attorney, Burt Odelson, filed an amended complaint in Cook County court, adding the Illinois Labor Relations Board as a defendant. And on Nov. 17, Odelson made a motion to prevent contract arbitration from beginning.
While the judge ruled that arbitration could move forward, she also ruled that if North Riverside refused to participate in the Nov. 24 session, it wouldn't prejudice the court against the village in terms of its lawsuit seeking to terminate the contract.
In other words, nothing that happens during arbitration will have any effect until after the judge rules on the merits of the village's lawsuit on Dec. 18.
While the judge could rule in favor of the village, she could also rule that the court is not the place to resolve the dispute. Rather, she could rule that arbitration is where the dispute ought to be settled.
If that happens, Odelson said he would immediately appeal the case to the Illinois Court of Appeals.
Village officials had hoped to be able to privatize the fire department this year, but the court case has moved slower than officials had hoped for.
Odelson said that he's happy with the progress of the case, saying "speed has always been paramount to this case."
"This has been lightning speed when you look at cases in Cook County," Odelson said.
Meanwhile, North Riverside firefighters and firefighters from surrounding communities are expected to go door-to-door this weekend in the village, passing out information regarding the village's proposal to privatize fire services.
"It'll be a quick handout of information that residents aren't getting," said Rick Urbinati, president of North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714.