It is somewhat awkward to write about a "breaking" story on Sunday morning when the words are not to be published until Monday morning.

In the 24 hours that elapse between the writing of the column and its being read by subscribers, many things can happen. These changes affect the public's interest in and perception of a story that is "developing," for changing from one hour to the next. Life is simpler for reporters than for columnists because reporters enjoy the luxury of much later deadlines.

Nevertheless, one can make a few observations that will be equaly valid, whether Chicago's firefighters are all in jail or back on the job by the time you read these lines.

We can begin with the comment that no city should permit its financial integrity to be put into jeopardy.

When revenues and expenditures get out of balance, there are a hundred ways to mask the truth but only one way to face it honestly.

The books can be juggled, money can be borrowed, money can be shifted from one account to another, projects can be cut back or abandoned, taxes can be raised and other revenues can be increased.

The public can be asked frankly whether it wants to pay more or receive fewer services, but few mayors or other politicians have the courage to bring that kind of bad news to the voters. It's always easier to finesse a problem than to meet it head on. If you quietly defer $10 million worth of maintenance work on the city's bridges, nobody knows and nobody cares. By the time the first bridge collapses, the other party will be in power and you can demand an investigation of the rascals.

In short, Chicago should not have permitted itself to get into financial straits that caused it to be tardy with paychecks for its schoolteachers and other employees.

I mention this only because it may have affected the city's bargaining position in its negotiations with with its firefighters. When you're broke, or almost broke, you have no choice except to bargain as hard as you can. If Chicago's treasury had been full, perhaps the city could have been more generous and averted the strike.

But having said all this, I must add that the union that represents Chicago's firefighters has acted reprehensibly in this matter. It has openly and deliberately defied a court's order to go back to work while negotiations continue. By its own estimate, "95 to 98 percent" of Chicago's 4,350 fireman are staying off the job. "Suspected arson" cases (can you guess who is suspected?) are being investigated. People have died because ambulances were unavailable. The city's 3,500,000 people are without adequate fire protection.

The same sad refrain runs through this strike as through most strikes called by municipal empolyees.

Mayor Jane Byrne quickly instructed the city's legal staff to notify all strikers that disciplinary charges would be brought against them. Threats were made that any firefighter who went on strike would be fired. The courts formally ordered the strikers back to work. And by the time you read this column, the courts will probably be threating to send union leaders to jail for contempt -- and in that case they might as well send me along, because my contempt for the handling of municipal strike cases is second to none.

At one point, a Chicago newsman asked a striker what he'd do if he saw a building burning down, and the striker said he'd just let it burn. When the mayor was asked for comment, she said such a person isn't fit to be a firefighter. He should be discharged.

Sure he should, mayor. But if you really fire everybody who has struck, you'll be the first big-city mayor in memory to do it.

And if the court really jails everybody who had defied its back-to-work order, I will push a peanut with my nose from here to Chicago.

Everybody involved in a dispute of this kind -- the mayor, the city council, the judge, the union leaders, the rank-and-file, the taxpayers, other municipal employees, municipal employees in other cities, in short, everybody -- knows that in the end it's always the same. There are no firings. Nobody goes to jail. If there are fines, they are inconsequential, and very likely will be paid slowly or not at all.

City officials and judges are quick to pop off and threaten strikers with all kinds of punishment, but they almost never have the guts to follow through and let the message be heard: There is no right to strike against the public safety.

The politicans ought to stop threatening people or make good on their threats. Municipal employees have learned that there is nothing to fear from mayors and judges, and it has therefore become common practice for municipal employees to strike.

I can't say I blame them. If politicians don't have the courage to back up their tough talk, why should municipal employees respect them? Why should anybody?