March 29th, 2016 2:24 PM
By Bob Uphues
An administrative law judge for the Illinois Labor Relations Board has ordered the village of North Riverside to rescind termination notices issued to firefighters in October 2014 and ordered it back to the bargaining table after rejecting the village's claim that it had the right to unilaterally terminate the union contract.
Anna Hamburg-Gal, in a recommended decision and order dated March 25, ruled that the village engaged in unfair labor practices related to their plan to privatize firefighting services and outsource them to Paramedic Services of Illinois, which has provided paramedic services for the village for decades.
Specifically, according to Hamburg-Gal, the village engaged in what is known as "surface" bargaining when it met with the union during the late summer and early fall of 2014 to negotiate a new contract with firefighters.
The most recent union contract expired April 30, 2014, but the two sides did not sit down at the bargaining table until June 24, 2014. Months prior to that, however, the village had been planning to privatize the fire department.
In early January 2014, according to the recommended decision and order, Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. met with Village Attorney Burt Odelson to discuss whether privatization was feasible.
By sometime in February 2014, Hermanek had met with officials from PSI to see if the company could provide firefighting services and to tell them that the village wouldn't seek competitive bids, the decision states.
In June of that year, PSI presented the village with an estimate that predicted the firm could provide firefighting services at savings of about $1 million compared to what the village was paying its union firefighters. Even before sitting down with the union at the bargaining table, the village published a letter to residents pitching privatization as an alternative.
Hamburg-Gal ruled that the village's quick rejection of union proposals to consolidate firefighting services into a fire protection district or to form a private company that would serve to provide qualified firefighters to the village "indicate a rush to reach impasse rather than meaningful consideration of the union's proposals."
Arguments that the village didn't have time to go through a referendum petition process for consolidation, stated Hamburg-Gal, were undercut by a village proposal to offer firefighters an 11-year contract that would gradually phase out union firefighters and replace them with PSI employees.
North Riverside "was willing to wait 11 years required to reap the full cost-savings of its own privatization plan," Hamburg-Gal wrote. "Surely, a modicum of investigation into the union's novel cost-savings proposal would not have taken so long."
The recommended decision and order also states that the village improperly changed the terms and conditions of employment while interest arbitration was pending and "interfered, restrained and coerced employees" when the village issued termination notices shortly after the union invoked interest arbitration proceedings.
Hamburg-Gal rejected the village's contention that it had the right to unilaterally terminate its contract with firefighters, who are considered "protective service employees" and are not allowed to strike.
Rather, she wrote, the law's "specific prohibition against unilateral changes to protective service unit employees' terms and conditions of employment applies where the employees at issue are firefighters."
J. Dale Berry, the attorney representing the firefighters' union said the village's interpretation of the law was "ridiculous" and the recommended decision highlighted that.
"The cornerstone of their strategy was the [interpretation] of [that part of the law], and she rejected it as being without merit," Berry said.
In response to the recommended decision and order, Hermanek told the Landmark that the absence of any sanctions, such as awarding the union its demand for the village to pay its attorneys' fees, was a win for the village.
Hermanek and union leaders have met informally several times since late 2015, and the mayor said he hopes both sides can still reach an agreement beneficial to both sides.
"Without sanctioning us, she's telling us to bargain with them," Hermanek said. "That's what I've been doing. I'm trying to get a long-term contract done."
The village and the union are allowed to file exceptions to the administrative law judge's recommended decision and order within 30 days.
Hermanek also said, for now, the village will not rescind its termination letters to firefighters, since it still is waiting on a ruling from the Illinois Court of Appeals.
"We're not going to remove the termination notices, but we will continue to bargain," Hermanek said.
North Riverside filed a lawsuit in circuit court in October 2014 after declaring it had reached an impasse in negotiations with the fire union.
The village at the time filed a motion asking Circuit Court Judge Diane Larsen to rule on its claim that it had the authority to unilaterally terminate the union contract. Larsen ruled that she didn't have jurisdiction because the village had not exhausted all avenues for remedies, which included arbitration by the ILRB.
Hermanek contended that Larsen made her ruling believing the village to be right, legally speaking, but didn't wish to overturn decades of labor law precedent.
"I think she thought we were right, but she didn't want to be the one to change the law in Illinois," Hermanek said.
The appellate court could decide to send the matter back to Larsen or it could make a ruling on its own that the village has the right to terminate the union contract, though that would be unlikely, according to Berry.
"The chances of that are, like, zero," he said.
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