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A FITTING PUNISHMENT

We agree with Buffalo Board of Education President Paul G. Buchanan that jail time for union President Philip Rumore is a bad idea. Nevertheless, the union's disregard for the law cannot go unanswered.

The Buffalo Teachers Federation president pleaded guilty last week to contempt of court for leading a teachers' strike Sept. 14. He faces up to 30 days in jail and a fine of $1,000. On Friday, State Supreme Court Justice Kevin M. Dillon will sentence Rumore. Union officers Barbara Bielecki and Edith LeWin also pleaded guilty and face the same penalties as their union president.

The union itself, which defied a court order not to strike, still faces a hearing and can receive far higher penalties. The challenge for Dillon will be to dispense the appropriate penalties to the union. In determining what those penalties are, Dillon will have to consider these questions:

What should he do about the union's affront to his court?

What is the proper penalty to a union that totally disregarded the law?

How does he measure the anxiety the union imposed on children and parents?

What severity of punishment will be enough to deter this union and others from cavalierly placing their own interests before the law and the public?

A public employee union can't have it both ways. It can have the protection and benefits of the Taylor Law and then behave as if the less convenient parts of that law don't apply to its members.

Let's be clear about the personal dedication the overwhelming number of city teachers have for their students. This concern has been exhibited time and again. But let's also be clear that union leadership does just that - it leads its membership.

In contempt cases, the judge has wide discretion and jail time is always possible, according to University at Buffalo labor law professor James Atleson. But jailing union officers too often turns them into martyrs and cements their political leadership.

Dillon is the sole decision-maker in this case, but he still faces the same problem of turning the leadership into heroes. The problem is exacerbated because the strike ended and both sides agreed to a settlement.

But the judge should not be lenient toward the union simply because it ended its illegal strike. It should not be forgotten that when the union walked out, it did so without warning or regard for the safety of the students who were left standing on street corners waiting for their buses.

To their collective horror, parents discovered at 7 a.m. that their children had nowhere to go that day.

There was no time for baby sitters, day-care arrangements, time off from work. Nothing. Parents had to scramble. And so did the school district, which employed emergency transportation measures.

The safety of our school children was compromised. Not once, but twice. On Sept. 14, the teachers' union called another strike. Again, with the same disregard for parents and school children. Again at 7 a.m.

In the end, teachers and the School Board worked out a contract that will benefit students, bringing outside social service agencies into the schools to provide counseling and other services. The union made the district pay a heavy price for a chance to provide the counseling that so many children from poor homes need. Perhaps it's what unions do, but threatening to withhold vital counseling from children who need it in exchange for sweetening a contract offer leaves a bitter taste that won't soon fade.

The union did well by its teachers, but also accepted some concessions. While teachers got a deserved pay raise, the district will save money as retirees begin paying for a portion of their health insurance for the first time.

But in reaching this contract, the federation broke a law that was enacted to protect the public interest. That should not be excused.

The penalty Dillon imposes against the BTF should be stiff enough so that parents are satisfied that they have received justice and the union knows that breaking the law involves real pain.

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