by Thomas J. Gilbert  (Summer 2018)

A recent decision from the Illinois Appellate Court for the Second District addressed several issues regarding the collective bargaining process which merit review. In International Association of Firefighters Local 413 AFL–CIO v. The City of Rockford, 2018 IL App (2d) 170318-U, a dispute arose between the City of Rockford and its firefighters’ union regarding the city’s attempted implementation of a provision requiring medical certification to be submitted by employees returning from sick leave. Prior to August 2011, the parties’ collective bargaining agreement contained provisions governing the use of sick leave, which did not include any protocol for medical certification required upon return from leave. Additionally, the City’s rules and policies featured independent requirements for sick leave.

On August 18, 2011, the City’s Fire Chief issued a memo announcing intended changes to the sick leave policy. Specifically, the memo proposed additional medical certifications following sick leave. This was done in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement’s established method for implementing new policies, which gave the union an opportunity to review the proposed policy prior to implementation and to file a grievance if deemed necessary. After analyzing the new sick leave changes, the union filed a grievance challenging the reasonableness of the policy. Meanwhile, the parties began the process of renegotiating their collective bargaining agreement. During the negotiations, the parties appeared to put the grievance on the backburner, perhaps hoping to resolve the sick leave issue through the collective bargaining process.

During negotiations, the parties reached a tentative agreement on the medical certification issue and other unrelated matters. However, the city and the union disagreed as to whether the sick leave policy change was supposed to be included in the new collective bargaining agreement. The city later asserted that it was never its intent to include the medical certification part of the collective bargaining agreement. Rather, it wanted the medical certification portion of the collective bargaining agreement to remain a policy outside of the agreement. The union conversely thought that the medical certification provision was supposed to be incorporated into the new contract.

The tentative agreement addressing the medical certification issues eventually made its way to interest arbitration as part of the underlying contract negotiations (as opposed to the grievance arbitration process). The interest arbitrator made a ruling that incorporated all of the tentative agreements into a successor collective bargaining agreement. Thinking that the sick leave policy was mistakenly added to the interest arbitrator’s successor agreement, the municipality submitted     the proposed collective bargaining agreement without the provision pertaining to medical certification requirements and announced that it would go forward with the policy regarding medical certification that it had previously announced. The union then filed a complaint with the Illinois Labor Relations Board alleging that the municipality committed an unfair labor practice when it attempted to implement a policy that was a change from the temporary agreement which was incorporated into the interest arbitrator’s decision.

The Illinois Labor Relations Board sided with the city, finding that there was no real “meeting of the minds” with regard to this sick leave issue and therefore the municipality did not commit an unfair labor practice when it implemented the agreement. Importantly, during this period of time, the underlying grievance regarding the unfairness of the policy remained viable and ready for grievance arbitration. The appellate court upheld the labor board on the basis that it was owed substantial deference.

There are several lessons that can be learned from the City of Rockford decision. First, when parties are negotiating a collective bargaining agreement, great care must be taken to ensure that there is a “meeting of the minds” before a document is to be initialed “TA.” Any oversight can result in confusion later or perhaps an unfair labor practice charge. Second, beware attempting to solve a pending grievance over the reasonableness of a policy by incorporating its substance into a new collective bargaining agreement without more clear and explicit reservations of rights. This will preserve flexibility moving forward.

As an epilogue, it is interesting to note that the parties had actually reached a settlement with regard to the grievance over the reasonableness of the policy implementation. It was only after that settlement that issues arose with respect to the unfair labor practice and whether the suggested language regarding the policy should make it into the collective bargaining agreement. The appellate court made its decision a “Rule 23” order which means that it is not to be published and thereby is unlikely to be considered as precedent. In so doing, the court appeared to indicate that it was not necessarily adopting the holding or reasoning of the labor board but following the rule of law that the decision of the administrative body will not be disturbed unless substantial error was committed by that body in the review process.