Illinois Village Reverses Course on Privatizing Fire Department

Elected officials in an Illinois village that took its taxpayers and firefighters on a three year $800,000 legal journey to privatize the fire department only to lose at every turn, have agreed to give up the fight.

Mayor Hubert Hermanek, Jr. has announced that the Village of North Riverside will stop pursuing privatizing its firefighting protection services. The decision comes on the heels of an Illinois Court of Appeals decision upholding an Illinois Labor Relations Ruling that found the village to have committed an unfair labor practice in 2014 when it opted to unilaterally implement its proposals rather than continue to negotiate and/or arbitrate.

The village’s strategy of unilateral action at impasse is commonly employed in the private sector, where the National Labor Relations Act allows management to implement its proposals once an impasse is reached. However, as the Court of Appeals ruled, that is not permitted in the public sector where employees are prohibited from striking:

  • In a typical negotiation where the parties have reached an impasse, the employer can unilaterally implement its final offer and employees can strike.
  • A community would be presented with a danger to its health and safety, however, if the functions of certain “[e]ssential services employees” were to terminate.
  • Firefighters provide such indispensible services.
  • Consequently, they are statutorily prohibited from striking.
  • That being said, depriving firefighters of the right to strike disadvantages them in bargaining with their employers.
  • Employees who lack the statutory right to strike “would not be on equal footing with the employer were the employer to implement its final offer upon reaching impasse.”
  • Consequently, the legislature attempted to correct this imbalance by affording those employees bargaining power to approximate the right to strike.
  • “[t]o prevent labor strife and to protect the public health and safety of the citizens of Illinois, all collective bargaining disputes involving persons designated by the Board as performing essential services *** shall be submitted to impartial arbitrators, who shall be authorized to issue awards in order to resolve such disputes.”
  • Where an employee’s right to strike is prohibited by law, an “alternate, expeditious, equitable and effective procedure” is required to resolve labor disputes.
  • [S]ection 14 [of the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act] gives firefighters prohibited from striking a procedure to “engage in negotiation and mediation, and, if no compromise can be reached, to compel arbitration.”
  • An employer’s unilateral change to employment conditions and terms constitutes an unfair labor practice because such unilateral actions deprive employees of their right to bargain.
  • Furthermore, “[g]ood faith bargaining, within the meaning of the Act, does not end at impasse; it continues through interest arbitration and the ultimate issuance of an award.
  • [S]ection 14(l) imposes a duty to maintain the status quo through the conclusion of interest arbitration,
  • Section 2 also compels this determination. It expressly states that disputes involving such employees prohibited from striking “shall be submitted to impartial arbitrators,” as an “alternate, expeditious, equitable and effective procedure” to resolve disputes.
  • Allowing employers to terminate a CBA and refuse to proceed to interest arbitration with firefighters would contradict the letter and spirit of the Act.
  • No quid pro quo would be achieved and employers would hold power greatly disproportionate to that held by the firefighters

Here is a copy of the decision: North Riverside v Illinois LRB

The Village’s decision will allow the 2014 contract to proceed to arbitration.

Mayor Hermanek was quoted by the Riverside Brookfield Landmark as saying “You don’t know ’til you try. Now we’ll just move in a different direction.” Ironically, another big difference between the private sector and public sector is the fact that unlike the owner of a business, Mayor Hermanek was not gambling with his own money on his journey to “try” something – he was rolling the dice with the taxpayers funds at no risk to himself.

According to the Landmark, the mayor says the entire adventure cost the taxpayers just $100,000, while the firefighters claim it was over $1 million. The Landmark’s own research showed the Village spent more than $800,000.

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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