Where are we now?

Opinion: Editorials

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So, just where is the village of North Riverside five and a half years after it last had a signed contract with its union firefighters?

You might be tempted to say that the village and its union firefighters are in exactly the same spot they were on April 30, 2014, but that wouldn't be right. Sure, the contract that will be voted on and officially ratified in two weeks doesn't, as Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. said, move any mountains.

But it did settle some things, at least in the short term. On the village administration's side of the ledger, they accomplished a couple of important things. First, they were able to get firefighters to agree to a different health insurance plan for new hires, retroactive to 2016 and were able to negotiate higher employee contributions for insurance premiums. 

The village, at least temporarily was able to cap union staffing levels at 13 firefighters. The union argues that's not adequate and will surely negotiate for that number to come up in a subsequent deal.

In addition to negotiating back pay raises of 2.5 percent annually, union members we think also gained a powerful tool for the future. While it's not part of the negotiated contract, all signs point to a hard, honest look at how the village will provide paramedic services in the future.

The firefighters' union has been calling for the village to end its reliance on using a contract paramedic service and instead use in-house, union firefighter/paramedics to provide both services.

In the past, the village would not countenance such a change, and the union's insistence on the matter was considered by the village as unsustainable, because it would simply add to the village's pension burden.

The main thrust behind the village's plan to break the union and contract out both paramedic and firefighting services was to eliminate future pension obligations. The courts rightly saw it though as an attempt to dismantle a half century's worth of settled labor law.

But, where in the past the village board wouldn't consider moving away from the concept of contract paramedics, that stance has softened. In part, it's softened, we believe, due to the success of trustees like H. Bob Demopoulos and Marybelle Mandel, who have backed the fire union and argued for the idea of in-house firefighter/paramedics.

With two VIP trustees, Terri Sarro and Joe Mengoni, urging at least a look at the concept, there's now a majority of the village board open to the possibility of change.

In the coming year, a blue-ribbon panel – which hopefully will include elected and appointed officials, the fire chief and firefighters' union representatives – is expected to look at the options available to the village related to paramedic services.

That honest look at whether or not an in-house solution might actually be better for the village is critical and has to be vetted before another union contract can be negotiated.

We have no idea where that analysis will lead, but an open, frank discussion followed by consensus on a way forward is what the village deserves.

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