The Oak Lawn Village Board has voted 4-1 to hire a law firm to appeal an Illinois State compliance order entered in February against the Village of Oak Lawn, in favor of Oak Lawn’s firefighters’ union awarding the firefighters $3.2 million dollars in back pay over the minimum manning issue lost by the village seven times.
The minimum manning issue has been debated for seven years with Village Manager Larry Deetjen recommending continuously that the Board of Trustees engage in what has become costly legal battles over whether the village has the right to reduce minimal staffing from 22 to 21 employees. Deetjen believes that the number should not include the battalion chief, which is not a union position. The union has successfully argued that the 21 number refers to 21 firefighters and paramedics within the bargaining unit.
Thus far, Deetjen’s argument has failed seven times with multiple arbitrators and the Illinois Appellate Court finding in favor of the firefighters’ union. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision by refusing to hear arguments in the case. The Illinois General Assembly, despite the lobbying by Mayor Sandra Bury and the Illinois Municipal League, passed a law that states that minimum manning is a matter for collective bargaining.
The Village of Oak Lawn has been subject to minimum manning for decades by virtue of its labor agreement. However, in 2008, the Village refused to staff the shifts at the agreed to number by calling in firefighters on overtime to cover the minimum staffing number. The union filed an unfair labor practice charge against the board when management refused to adhere to the collectively bargained contract. At Deetjen’s urging the board appealed the decision and lost. Arbitrator Stanley Kravit entered an order in September of 2008 setting the minimum staffing number at 21.
In 2009, Administrative Law Judge Sylvia Rios ruled that the village had failed to bargain the issue of minimum manning with the union. Rios held that minimum manning was a mandatory subject of collective bargaining and held that the Village had failed to “bargain in good faith” upholding the unfair labor practice charge by the union. Rios, like Kravit, also awarded retroactive pay to the firefighters ruling that the employees were to be made whole for any work that would have been done had the village complied with the contract.
Village Manager Larry Deetjen has argued that the back pay, which now amounts to over $3.2 million dollars is unfair. He recently told Trustees that the money is for work that was never done. According to the Daily Southtown’s Steve Metsch, Deetjen wrote in an email response that the decision will require a payment “for work not performed nor the delivery of any improvement in public safety services for our residents.”
Trustee Robert Streit (Dist. 3) said that Deetjen’s argument is illogical. “He (Deetjen) caused the problem and back pay is supposed to be given to employees as if they worked the hours. That’s the whole point.” Streit’s point seems to be clearly in sync with the compliance order issued by Michael Provines with the Illinois Labor Relations Board who wrote that the standard remedy in unfair labor practice cases is to make the aggrieved party whole.
Deetjen, however, urged the Mayor and Board to approve the hiring of the law firm, Clark Baird Smith LLP, to appeal Provines decision. Streit was the lone “no” vote. “I’ve lost all confidence in Larry (Deetjen) and I don’t think the continued legal battles are in the best interest of the taxpayers”, said Streit.
While Streit has argued against pursuing legal action with the firefighters and urged negotiations, Mayor Sandra Bury has aggressively defended Deetjen and the course of action taken. Streit said that he requested the amount of legal bills the village has spent on the legal fights with the village and was told that the village spends more on responding to Freedom of Information requests from him and former elected officials.
“Deetjen is 0 for 7 and he wants to continue fighting while refusing to even tell the people how much all of these cases are costing taxpayers”, said Streit. He added, the bill is at $3.5 million to the firefighters and probably another million in legal fees.