AS so often, Britain's trade unions seem to be in the national doghouse.
But let's just for a moment forget about Falkirk, and also about Ed Miliband's somewhat erratic relations with the unions, and indeed - this is less easy - forget some of the crass public interventions that union leaders have made and will no doubt continue to make.
Away from all this political manoeuvring and bluster, many trade unions do a lot of very supportive work behind the scenes, work that is vital and valuable, but is little discussed because it is more concerned with sorting mundane problems than with national power broking.
Union officials are often involved in the crucial but unsung work of helping people who are in deep difficulty. Beneath the rhetoric about national strikes and pay claims, even about bringing governments down, much quiet, decent and useful support is being provided.
My own experience of union officials - both paid and unpaid - is that their main function was often to be a kind of social worker. They would give practical help to colleagues and members, and their families, when they fell on bad times and could not cope.
Our society is selfish and fractured. By no means all employers are benign (although many do genuinely care about their workers) and even the vast, very expensive apparatus of the state and local councils simply cannot deal with many of the difficulties people face in their daily lives - problems that might seem minor in the great scheme of things, but can still be insidious, gnawing away at people's self-belief and self-respect, leading to despair and desperation.
Union leaders would do themselves a service if they spent less time posturing about great affairs of state, almost as if they were an alternative government, or at least wanted to ensure than any future Labour government would be their patsies. Instead they should remind the public at large that they actually do, at ground level, a lot of necessary and practical good.
Although fewer and fewer workers are unionised, the unions still represent millions of hard-working people. This need not be, indeed should not be, directly political representation. Polls have indicated that many members of the bigger unions do not vote Labour. They want their union to look after their immediate interests in the workplace, and to help them if they are in trouble. They do not want their union to behave like a political party, or indeed a big branch of the Labour Party. I'm convinced this mindset is very prevalent.
The relationship between Labour and the unions has been close for more than 100 years. It became far too close in the 1970s, when union barons like Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon - admittedly men of substance - became much more important and powerful than most ministers in the Labour Government of the time. This led directly to the election of Margaret Thatcher.
Things are different now, except in one sense - it does look as if we could be heading for another winter of discontent. There is talk of a one-day general strike while fire-fighters and postal workers are preparing for what could be serious, long disputes.
The overall condition of workers in the UK is deteriorating. Worker poverty is now just as big a problem as the poverty of the unemployed. Real wages are for many workers considerably lower than they were three years ago. Millions of children, many of them the children of employed people, face upbringings scarred by serious hardship. Food banks fill a need not only for the old and the unemployed, but for many in employment - and their dependants.
In this grim scenario, the unions can and will do much practical good. Of course some on the Left will argue that is not their basic function; they should be taking direct political action. If they concentrate on the social work function, they are almost, by proxy, helping the Coalition Government. This is the dilemma that ordinary union members must resolve, and soon.
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