The Cook County Appellate Court sided with the village of Oak Lawn in a ruling issued Aug. 12 against the local firefighters union that village officials say will save taxpayers $3.2 million.
The union has the right to ask the Illinois Supreme Court to review the decision, but union President Lt. Vince Griffin said this week that the union will abide by the ruling.
This decision effectively settles a dispute over staffing levels dating back to 2008 when the firefighters union filed a grievance against Oak Lawn after the village started staffing engines with three people instead of four.
A grievance arbitrator sided with the union and ordered the village to maintain a minimum of 21 people per shift and provide $286,000 in back pay the nine months that staffing fell below that. The village complied with that and paid the amount ordered. But the latest judgment stems from a subsequent compliance petition filed by the union arguing that that the village should actually be staffing 22 people per shift.
The Illinois Labor Relations Board initially found in favor of the union and awarded it $3.2 million in back pay and accrued interest last year. But the Labor Relations Board reversed its own ruling on appeal, and the Appellate Court’s decision upholds that decision that Oak Lawn was not liable for the back pay and interest.
“We are, of course, thrilled that the Appellate Court ruled in favor of taxpayers and rejected the union’s efforts to win more than $3 million for work never performed. It is frustrating that the union has steadfastly refused to bargain in good faith over this issue,” said Village Manager Larry Deetjen.
Mayor Sandra Bury said, “Despite the union’s history of constantly rejecting our proposals, the door remains open to any proposal from the union that would address our staffing concerns and let all parties move forward with a productive relationship while protecting the interests of our taxpayers. We have tried and will continue to try doing what’s best for our residents.”
Bury noted that Oak Lawn shares Fire Chief George Sheets with neighboring Chicago Ridge, where the village board unanimously approved a new contract with the firefighters union last week.
”Chief Sheets was able to successfully negotiate a new union contract in Chicago Ridge ahead of schedule and with little drama…Lack of good faith bargaining and continued litigation initiated by IAFF Local 3405 in Oak Lawn not only hurts taxpayers but also tarnishes the reputation of an honored profession,” she said.
The mayor asserted that village made at least seven compromise offers to solve the issue, but the union rejected them all without making a counter offer.
While Griffin said the union will abide by the latest ruling, he expressed his displeasure with it.
“Currently, the staffing trajectory is a downward trend. Our calls are up and our staffing is down. That definitely raises some questions about safety.”
Griffin rejected the theory that staffing levels are more than adequate, especially considering the mutual aid agreements in place with surrounding fire departments.
“I think that is a smokescreen,” said Griffin. He said that of the 8,000 calls received annually about 6,000 are medical emergency calls, which the fire department handles itself.
“Some people think that MABAS (Mutual Aid Box Alarm System) is a cure-all, but we are concerned with safety of the worker. If there are three people on a truck sent out, rather than four, that could pose a safety issue.”