By Bob Uphues
The village of North Riverside filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court on Sept. 12, asking a judge to allow it to proceed with a plan to privatize its fire department in order to escape the "prospective devastating financial consequences" that would result from operating its full-time municipal fire department in the future.
In the lawsuit, the village claims that management and North Riverside Firefighters Union 2714 are at an impasse after "months" of negotiations. The first time the two sides sat down to discuss a new contract was June 24. Their final negotiation session, overseen by a federal mediator, took place Sept. 9.
However, firefighters dispute the village's contention that negotiations are at an impasse and this week will file an unfair labor practices complaint with the Illinois Labor Relations Board, according to the attorney representing Local 2714.
"They're misrepresenting the negotiation situation," said J. Dale Berry. "They have artificially created this impasse."
Firefighters are claiming that the village refuses to negotiate, and they complain that all of the village's efforts to fix North Riverside's financial situation focus on the fire department. They believe the village is still targeting firefighters, who opposed the mayor and village board majority during the 2013 election campaign.
"We think it's a targeted move to remove the firefighters," Berry said.
At the heart of the lawsuit is the village's contention that it should not in this instance be limited by language in its union contract with firefighters, and contained in the Illinois Labor Relations Act, that states no one side can unilaterally change employment conditions while negotiations or arbitration are pending.
The village's position is that "it can no longer responsibly enter into a 'new or amended agreement' with the union" because of its financial situation, which it lays out in detail in the suit.
Further, the village argues that neither the union contract nor labor law prevents the village from outsourcing its fire protection services "following a good-faith legislative determination of the present and future economic necessity to take such action, and following good-faith negotiations with the union."
The firefighters union remains unconvinced that the village has any right to terminate the conditions of its contract, which expired April 30.
"They can't do anything without a declaratory judgment," said Rick Urbinati, president of Local 2714. "The fact is, it's still in effect, and we're still working. We're not leaving work."
North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. stated last week that he would be disappointed if the village were unable to privatize the fire department by November.
As a result, the village's attorney, Burt Odelson, said he will be asking Judge Diane J. Larsen to expedite the case this week.
"It's only a question of law," said Odelson. "I'm going to propose we file a motion for summary judgment, simply because it involves fire protection. I intend to push this as hard as I can to get things resolved."
Meanwhile, Berry said firefighters on Sept. 18 will invoke the interest arbitration clause in the union contract and ask the Illinois Labor Relations Board to provide a panel of arbitrators from which one would be chosen to handle the matter.
The arbitrator has the authority to issue an award. If the arbitrator rules against the village, the village board could reject the arbitrator's decision by a three-fifths vote. At that point, the case would be referred back to the arbitrator.
In addition, union firefighters from North Riverside and other neighboring communities met in Berwyn on Sept. 12 to discuss the possibility of pitching consolidation as a better resolution to voters as early as next spring.
Urbinati said the first step is to determine what the boundaries of such a consolidated department might be. After that, firefighters would have to get enough signatures on petitions in each community that would be affected to get a consolidation question on the ballot.
As for the lawsuit pending in circuit court, Urbinati expressed confidence that a judge would uphold the language in the contract and as expressed in labor law.
"I don't see how any judge can allow this," said Urbinati. "But if that's where this needs to go, we'll wait to hear what the judge has to say."