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Proposal gives fire unions say in staffing levels

Published: Monday, April 28, 2014 10:57 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – Municipal leaders say a proposal quietly moving through the Illinois Legislature would give unions a said in how many firefighters are on a city’s force – inevitably leading to higher property taxes or cuts to services.

The measure, which House lawmakers approved April 3, ensures firefighter staffing levels are part of contract negotiations between fire unions and city officials.

Mayors and fire chiefs said the measure tips leverage in favor of unions and takes hiring and layoff decisions away from local officials.

“The fire chief has to make his case in that community,” Glenview Fire Chief Wayne Globerger said. “You’re handcuffing the politicians and public who elected them – who should be able to set their own service levels.”

But fire union officials, who support the measure and represent thousands of Illinois firefighters, have said city officials are using a false “scare tactic” to take away bargaining rights.

It’s another addition to the ongoing dispute among the state’s municipal leaders and public safety unions. Already, mayors have urged lawmakers to scale back local fire and police pension costs, which they say are increasing at an unsustainable rate. No such legislation has been introduced at the Capitol. Under current law, the firefighter unions and city officials can negotiate wages, hours, and working conditions. A third party makes the final decision if an agreement isn’t met.

The definition of “working condition” has been an issue in recent legal disputes over who controls staffing levels, disputes that supporters of the proposal say lead to unnecessary court expenses for cities and fire unions.

Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner, who has been a proponent of cutting pensions, said giving more bargaining rights to firefighter unions would cost his city millions of dollars.

“What this really provides is leverage to the unions to basically negotiate more expensive contracts for the taxpayers,” Weisner said. “It stands to give the fire union a brand new bargaining chip.”

Staffing levels have always fallen under the parameters of working-condition negotiations and this proposal only clarifies that point, fire union officials say.

“What more important issue is there for a firefighter — in the team sport that firefighting is — than how many people are working next to them and being able to safely operate at an emergency?” Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois president Pat Devaney said. “Unfortunately, they want to make changes without negotiating it and it’s in violation of the law.”

He added that some Illinois cities already include manning levels in contract negotiations and third-party arbitrators rarely increase the levels for firefighter unions.

It’s unclear whether Chicago is included in the bill’s language. Devaney said the bill’s intent is to include the city. But sponsoring state Rep. Rita Mayfield, a Democrat, says the legislation would not include Chicago because the city already allows manning levels to be part of bargaining.

State Sen. Kwame Raoul is sponsoring the measure that awaits consideration in a Senate committee. He didn’t return calls for comment on Monday.

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The bill is HB5485.

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Contact Chacour Koop at https://twitter.com/chacourkoop.

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