Striking is so last century

China and India pose more of a threat than bosses or workers

A young person making his or her way in the world of work today in this, the fifth-largest economy on earth, enjoying low unemployment, low interest rates, low inflation and economic growth all at the same time, would not recognise a world where Red Robbo could paralyse through intimidation and worse (I know, I was born and brought up near Longbridge car plant) a major multinational and contribute to its eventual demise. In a globalised economy, where threats and challenges are more potent from China or India than from "the bosses" or "the workers", people working hard for competitive wages would not understand the longest suicide act in history that was the conduct of so many trade unions in the middle years of the 20th century.

In my six and a half years at the helm of the CBI, I saw a marked contrast between the attitudes of unions in the private and public sectors to strikes. In the private sector, in businesses that have a choice about where to locate and how many to employ, partnership (rather than "them and us") is high on the agenda. Whatever some of their leaders bang on about, from calling for the return of secondary picketing to shouting out the strike threat to overseas investors creating jobs in this country, their members know better - that the world of work has changed forever, and security no longer comes in that job, but in being well trained enough always to have a job. Indeed, unless more unions shift their agenda towards skilling people and equipping them for inevitable change (which many, to be fair, are doing), they themselves will become redundant.

Things are different in the public sector. You can't take a railway, a hospital or a community centre to Slovakia - and unions know it. Not having to work with employers, they can afford to be more confrontational, using the strike threat more viciously. What irony! People saying public services are safe with them and then putting themselves, the deliverers, ahead of the tax-paying customers, who are often vulnerable and incapable of fighting back. They strike to deny choice to the people they affect to champion.

The day in 1976 when Chancellor Denis Healey, threatened with strike action, announced that he would knock a penny off income tax if the unions accepted a £6-a-week pay rise limit was seminal for me. An elected leader giving in to vested self-interest was not my idea of democracy. The threat of the strike appeared to give unions amazing power in 1976. Therein lay their downfall. In public distrust, they still pay a price today.

Sir Digby Jones was director general of the CBI from 2000 to 2006, and is senior adviser to Deloitte, Barclays Capital and Ford of Europe