The marching season opened last Friday with a creditable turnout of union members snaking their way through eight cities, all calling for a "better, fairer way" out of our economic crisis. Estimates of the numbers who took part varied from 30,000 to 70,000 in Dublin depending on which side was doing the counting. The vast majority were public service workers. The union leaders must have been disappointed. This was no overwhelming show of strength on the lines of the fabled tax marches or even the more recent protest over taking medical cards from the over 70s.

Next week, the so-called Frontline alliance takes its members to the streets in a show of strength from the nurses, prison officers, fire officers and gardaí. After that, TDs' clinics will be "canvassed". Meanwhile, other unions including the teachers are balloting their members on industrial action should pay be cut in the budget. A one-day public service strike is scheduled for 24 November.

Last Friday, the rhetoric from the union leaders and speakers was top notch, designed yet again to stoke fiery indignation at the nasty bankers and incompetent politicians who brought us to our knees. The anger was fervent, the point meaningless.

As the marchers snaked their way through the streets, another cohort of the population watched in incomprehension. The inability of public sector union leaders to concede in any shape or form that their €19bn pay bill is no longer affordable, that their pay by every calculation is 20% above the equivalent in the private sector, and that their work practices are in serious need of reform has left those outside the cocoon flabbergasted.

To everybody else, when the public sector talks of a "better, fairer way", it means that health, welfare and educational services will have to be cut to pay the wages of an already well paid sector. It will bring greater cuts in social welfare than would otherwise be necessary. It means that taxes of those who have already taken pay cuts must be increased to maintain the pay and pension levels that everyone else would give their eye teeth for.

Far from uniting the country behind a solidarity agenda that would see us all suffering some pain so that we can claw our way out of this mess, the "better, fairer way" is deepening the divisions between public sector and private sector workers (very few of whom were out marching) and creating new layers of anger and resentment that are highly destructive to the fabric of our daily life.

The contradictions in the union campaign are becoming more untenable by the day.

While they no doubt have a point about the ease with which the Commission on Taxation recommendations for structural changes in our tax system have been long-fingered, there is no easy way of raising money from taxation.

As Ictu published its alternative policy, the latest tax returns were published and predictably they explode the myth that there is a money tap that can be magically turned on. Those were the bubble days. They were part of the problem. They cannot be part of the solution. They are gone.

Pay cuts and redundancies in the private sector are pulling incomes down so far, half of all earners are now out of the tax net, while the percentage paying tax at the top rate is down from 21% to 10%.

The taxation commission called for a property tax. But were it to become a realistic policy it would be hard to see the public sector trade unions getting their shoulders behind a campaign to sell it as a 'fair' way to raise revenue. Interestingly, Siptu boss Jack O'Connor in his stupid TV spat with Pat Kenny spoke only of "trophy houses" being taxed, a far cry from the sort of structural reform envisioned by the taxation commission. O'Connor and other union bosses are all too well aware that the largest portion of the population that own a property are the very public sector workers – teachers, gardaí, nurses and civil servants – who would cry loudest at the very thought of an annual tax on their most important and possibly only asset.

The other big contradiction for public sector union leaders is the fact that they are protesting on behalf of some of the highest paid people in the country – the senior civil servants, university leaders, health managers, judges, and senior medical consultants whose salaries are in the stratosphere compared with everyone else. Pay cuts of 10%-15% are very likely for this category but they surely cannot be contemplating any sort of industrial action should this be the case.

Last Friday's marches were redolent with memories of the 1980s. Union leaders wanted to invoke that shared feeling of solidarity and injustice that workers are being asked to pay for the sins of an élite.

They are correct ? we are all paying for mad bankers, sleeping regulators and politicians in thrall of the developers. But the trouble is, the union leaders themselves were to a lesser extent a part of that élite and, like the politicians, they too have been "found out".

Their job is, of course, to negotiate the best deal possible for their members. But they have never been found wanting when building the mesmeric system of allowances, increments, overtime and pensions that have made public-sector work highly desirable.

Now, the realisation is dawning that, like the property bubble, it is all built on borrowings. The money simply is not there to support it. We are spending €58bn this year and taking in just €32bn from a diminishing tax base. Public sector borrowing is drawing ever closer to the sort of levels seen in the 1980s. The trouble is this time round the private debt of individuals is massively overstretched too, making the risk of passing the tipping point all the greater.

The mood among union leaders does seem to be pointing to a new realism. Peter McLoone conceded jobs will have to be lost if pay remains at current levels. It seems the stomach for industrial action is there in only the most militant of unions. Some nurses resent being used as the 'face' of public-sector protest.

But as negotiations with the Department of Finance start in earnest this week, have the union leaders vented the anger that is out there so that a new realism can finally prevail. Or have they simply stoked the anger to a point where any deal at all is impossible to sell?