A judge today sentenced Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, to 15 days in jail for showing "complete and total disrespect" for the law by leading a strike of city teachers.
"What it came down to was: Either you were in charge or the law was in charge," State Supreme Court Justice Kevin M. Dillon said while sentencing the labor leader. "In words and deeds, you made it clear you were not going to adhere to court orders you did not agree with. That is difficult for me to accept and impossible for me to condone."
Dillon did not impose jail terms on BTF officers Barbara Bielecki and Edith LeWin but fined them each $1,000.
Rumore was told to report at 2 p.m. today to begin serving the sentence and was also slapped with a $1,000 fine.
"I think the sentence is a fair sentence, and I am willing to serve it," Rumore said after the court session. "I'm looking forward to getting it over with."
Asked if he would, in retrospect, do things differently, Rumore replied: "I don't want to get into that."
Rumore faced the possibility of 30 days in jail for violating Dillon's no-strike order and the state's Taylor Law by leading a teachers strike on Sept. 14.
Dillon also is empowered to impose a fine
of any amount he deems reasonable against the union when he sentences it on Nov. 13.
Last Friday, the three officers and the BTF, as a corporation, pleaded guilty to contempt of court charges for violating Dillon's no-strike order and the Taylor Law.
The sentences imposed today cannot be appealed.
Dillon said Rumore's actions "made a mockery of court authority" and "inflicted harm on the city, its citizens and its children."
The judge said he spared Rumore a maximum sentence partly because he pleaded guilty to the contempt count last week after one day of what could have been a weeklong trial and because he waived his right to appeal the sentence.
Rumore's actions, Dillon said, were not designed to change an unjust law and should not be considered civil disobedience.
"It was about negotiating a contract," Dillon said.
In his presentence comments to Dillon, Rumore said: "I'm fully ready to accept responsibility for my actions."
However, he insisted that two early-morning decisions by teachers not to report to work were not designed to inconvenience families or endanger students already waiting for buses.
"We had no idea that the district was going to close the schools," he said. "The job action was to withhold our services and not to inflict any damage."
Dillon said the case revolved around court authority, not unionism, the BTF or the school administration.
He said he issues hundreds or orders each year, dealing with child support, judgments, government benefits and other issues. If those were ignored, the judge said, "then we would have a society that's in chaos."
"The orders of this court will be enforced," he said.
Although a contract settlement was reached shortly after the two one-day strikes, Dillon insisted that the job action was harmful to the union, too.
"The strike held your members up to public ridicule," he told Rumore. "You did a disservice to your membership."
Dillon said he "struggled mightily" with his sentencing decisions, especially since the contempt-of-court law does not allow for a sentence of community service in lieu of jail time.
Both Bielecki and LeWin told Dillon they accepted responsibility for violating the court order.
"I did what I believed was the right thing to do," said Bielecki, an elementary school teacher. "I returned to my classroom this past week and have spoken with the children (about it)."
LeWin said: "The decisions I made were not easy decisions for me to make. I'm prepared to accept responsibility for the actions I took."
Dillon said both Bielecki and LeWin have excellent reputations in school and the community but knew what they did was wrong.
"It is clear to me that you were way over your head, Miss Bielecki," Dillon said. "Way over your head."
He told LeWin: "If I could impose a sentence of community service, I would. But I can't."
Dillon, who has run for office with BTF support, told Rumore he has great respect for unions.
"I've never crossed a picket line in my life," he said. "I've never purchased a foreign-born car." But he said the BTF should have pursued its objectives through lawful means.
"I tried my very best to maintain balance," Dillon said. "This has to be (looked at) in a context."
Prior to the sentencing, Buffalo Corporation Counsel Michael B. Risman said that the strike caused severe inconvenience for parents and children, deprived students of an education, caused financial harm to many parents, harmed the image of the city and the school system and that the BTF ignored legal negotiating alternatives.
But Risman stopped short of making a specific sentencing recommendation, and Dillon pressed him on that point.
"What is the position of your client?" the judge said. "Should I take into consideration this concept of the healing process?"
But other than saying that "some sanctions are appropriate," Risman didn't budge. "I dare say that if you talk to all nine members of the School Board . . . every one would have a slightly different view of what the court should do," he said.
Two other legal and administrative issues remain unresolved in the wake of the strike. They are:
Imposition of the Taylor Law's two-for-one penalties, in which teachers lose a day's pay and are fined another for each day on strike. The BTF concedes it has little possibility of successfully contesting that.
A motion filed by the district that could lead to the suspension of the BTF's automatic dues check-off provisions. The union plans to fight that move before the state's Public Employment Relations Board by claiming the strike resulted from "extreme provocation" on the part of the Board of Education.
When he pleaded guilty to the contempt charge, Rumore said he "advocated and recommended" the strike because he was convinced Buffalo teachers could not get a fair contract any other way.