Like any citizens of this pluralistic society, civil servants have the right to take to the streets to air their grievances. But the thousands who took part in yesterday's rally against a pay cut have failed to endear themselves to most members of the public. The unions have carefully crafted their slogans. Instead of saying they oppose a pay cut, they say they are against the government effecting the reduction by legislation. They want the government to settle the dispute through talks or arbitration. But the rhetorical twist cannot hide their tactical considerations in using the row to enhance their bargaining power in dealing with the administration in future. The fact is that the pay-cut levels, at between 1.58 per cent and 4.42 per cent, are modest and have been determined through a well-accepted mechanism. Even after their salaries are slashed, civil servants will still be overpaid compared with their private sector counterparts. A law has to be passed to implement the reduction only because the clauses governing pay adjustment in their appointment contracts are murky. Although the unions have a weak case against pay reduction, the government cannot ignore the sizeable turnout at yesterday's rally, which could be seen as an indication of civil servants' resentment at the way they have been treated. Over the past five years, public perception of Hong Kong's civil service, once lauded for its fine traditions and efficiency, has undergone a sea change. Rightly or wrongly, its senior members have been blamed for alleged incompetence, such as in the handling of bird flu outbreaks and the opening of the Chek Lap Kok airport, while an inquisitive media has found scores of junior members cheating at work. Meanwhile, under reform measures aimed at slashing costs and boosting efficiency, some 17,000 civil servants will have been made redundant by March next year. Most terminations were effected voluntarily and the dismissed were well compensated. But those who stay on have had their workloads increased and remain anxious about the future. Until now, a sense of insecurity caused by the reform has only led to sporadic protests by affected civil servants. Now, an across-the-board pay cut has galvanised many more to vent their feelings. Yet, for the greater good of Hong Kong, the pay cut must be implemented and civil service reform has to continue. The responsibility of effecting them smoothly falls on both the government and union leaders.