I spent many years working for different trade unions mostly in the public sector and for several years in the private sector where I would regularly be asked this question.

I was almost always confident in answering in the affirmative, but there were times when it was not easy or when there was a nagging doubt in my mind. People would often ask me the question with a hint of sympathy in their voice or with the clear suggestion that the real answer had to be no.

The challenge facing unions today is greater than ever but at the same time, now is a great opportunity for them to make the case in their favour. The scale and pace of change in the workplace is greater and faster than at any time in history. It is also a time when employers need the knowledge, experience and support of their employees more than in the past.

Unions are agents of change when at their best. Helping to introduce better ways of working, leading social change and helping employees to achieve their potential. However unions sometimes risk being "small c conservative", slow to respond to major change and prone to focusing on their internal issues. They can also be very bureaucratic, but then again so can many employers.

Since the 2008 crash we have seen many unions in the private sector being creative, fast moving and helping to solve serious problems - using their collectivism and democratic processes as forces for good. That has been the case in manufacturing in companies like Jaguar Landrover and other parts of the automotive industry. A progressive approach has been well championed by USDAW in retail. Unions are working with NHS Trusts across the country to manage the challenges facing the service.

In workplaces across the UK individual union full timers and elected representatives do lots of great work, improving workplaces, tackling inequality, corporate malpractice or just helping to sort out day to day issues.

You will not read about these things in the media or hear about them radio or TV. Sadly there are virtually no industrial correspondents left in the UK media. Most of the current journalists covering union stories have little knowledge of their subject and talk in outdated clichés. So many times I was asked if we faced another winter of discontent by a young journalist who didn't really know what it was and who wasn't born then. If I tried to get a good news story about unions in the media I was wasting my time. Industrial strife or militant political statements were all they wanted. Sadly, by focusing only on this rather than on the everyday positive work representatives do, they further undermine the public perception of trade unions.

The steady rise of employee engagement and employee voice has nevertheless been quietly gaining traction with more and more employers and progressive trade unionists recognising this as the way forward for unions in a modern, fast paced global economy. In today's economic environment the past opposition to working in partnership is exposed as out of step with today's employees. It has enabled unions to present their offering in a modern context, illustrate their professionalism, utilise their members’ vocational knowledge and crucially to influence employers for good.

It has also exposed unions to employees who previously had no face to face experience of unions, and challenged the clichés unions are so overwhelmed with at times. The unions have themselves benefitted from this experience as they learn more about modern employees’ attitudes and aspirations at work. The missed opportunity of using the Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations to establish effective works councils is starting to present itself afresh for progressive trade unionists, with works councils and employee forums being seen more as an opportunity and less of a threat. Modern employees are ethical, want to develop their skills and get on at work.  They like working for a successful organisation, expect quality management, and respect diversity. Sounds like a union agenda to me.

It is clear to me that unions have both the opportunity and the skill base to be a significant influence and a positive influence in the modern workplace. The question for them is not new, will they be brave enough to take it? The same question applies to employers. If they do not, both sides will lose out and so too the UK economy. I fear though that the unions would be hit hardest with their numbers having already suffered a steady decline over the last thirty years.

It does not have to be and should not be like that. The progressive spirit of unions and today's workers can come together and finally kill off the old clichés. Play safe and the future remains difficult, be brave and opportunities will grow and grow.

Graham Steel is a former senior officer at PCSU and a member of the IPA Executive. He writes in a personal capacity.