The industrial action taken by Unison members yesterday could be a taste of things to come.
While health and education workers were protesting at the savage cuts in the budgets for their respective sectors, another bone of contention has emerged with the Stormont Executive agreeing that public sector workers will have to pay an extra 3.2% into their pension pots. This has already fuelled anger in Britain and is likely to have a similar effect on this side of the Irish Sea in the shape of industrial action next month.
It is understandable that education and health workers are concerned about the future of schools and hospitals given that the education budget is facing a shortfall of £300m over four years and health is facing cuts of £2.3bn. Their trepidation about the future effect on services is shared by the public at large, but their tactic of embarking on industrial action has to be questioned, especially when the full support of the union's members is questionable. The fact that only 18% of Unison members actually voted in the ballot for strike action is a blow to the credibility of the tactic.
Furthermore, when health services are affected - the Department of Health said 2,400 appointments or procedures were cancelled because of the walk out by workers - public sympathy for those engaged in strike action quickly disappears. Those waiting for appointments or treatment will now have their care delayed and that is something they will find difficult to forgive.
It would be unfortunate in these times of austerity if public sector workers find themselves at loggerheads with their political paymasters. The politicians have to make hard decisions based on the money made available to Northern Ireland by the Treasury and, inevitably, it will be spread more thinly than in the past. That is of scant comfort to those working in the public sector, but it would perhaps be more productive if they engaged in meaningful discussions with ministers on how to make the most efficient use of available resources rather than appearing to be seeking confrontation.