sandra leventon 1938-2001

Sandra Leventon was the first paid General Secretary of the Community and Youth Workers’ Union (CYWU) and the first women to have been elected as a General Secretary of any trade union as far as we are aware. She was born in the year when the first youth workers’ union was formed.

We are deeply saddened to report the death from Motor Neurone Disease of Sandra Leventon. Sandra made a great political and intellectual contribution to the development of youth work long before she became the Union’s General Secretary and it is no exaggeration to say that without her contribution neither the Youth Service nor youth work would be here today. In the late fifties, only the lobbying of the Union, then known as the Youth Service Association, together with the voluntary youth work sector, prevented the near termination of the Youth Service. This lobbying led to the formation of the Albemarle Committee and the subsequent resourcing of the service and its professionalisation through JNC for the first time in 1961.

Once the infrastructure was established and the profession respected, it became possible not just to improve pay terms and conditions for the workers, but to assert the value of the work to the point where statutory funding on a par with schools could be contemplated. Sandra not only led the negotiations which resulted in the mid seventies in at least 25% pay rises for youth workers, but she also inaugurated the first concerted Parliamentary efforts to create a legislative base for the Youth Service. Parliamentarians of all parties were persuaded by the Union’s arguments that Sandra so effectively expressed and in fact formulated.

Sandra established the first national office of the Union in Manchester and professionalised the union’s administrative support and identity. She did this despite travelling by train day after day to represent members in the many difficult casework situations they faced. Her successful support for members, coupled with her negotiation of a strategic framework of terms and conditions established for our Union one of the best casework reputations in the Labour Movement. Tenacious, forceful, always reasonable, and always for her members, Sandra had to be respected by employers locally and nationally. She confided in the late nineties that on more than one occasion she, as a woman official, took ‘protection’ with her to potentially unpleasant meetings with certain ‘primitive’ managements. Her voice in the tradition of campaigning women is a great one.

The idea that youth work uniquely would put young people first came from organised trade unionists, mostly women, in the early days and Sandra kept this vital educational and political sense alive in her representation of youth workers on various national bodies where policies were formed.

Sadly, in 1981 Sandra resigned from her position with CYSA (CYWU’s previous title) when her mother, who was caring for Sandra’s aunt, herself became ill. Her initial experience of being a carer very quickly led her to recognise the deficiencies in social and welfare support for carers. This did not stop her supporting youth workers and she undertook a lot of support work and union promotion throughout the eighties. However, while doing that, her prime concern was looking after her mother, which she continued to do long after the death of her aunt.

From this experience she began to organise carers themselves and to campaign for a better deal for them.  She was instrumental in initiating almost everything that has come about for carers throughout the British Isles, including setting up the National Association of Carers as it was then known, becoming Carers National Association in order to put carers first and now known as Carers UK.  During this time she took a test case to the European Court in order to obtain Invalid Care Allowance for married women and as ever, was successful in her undertaking.  She edited the journal of the association for some years and for ten years, in a voluntary capacity, ran the Greater Manchester Office, which included a very successful Carers’ Helpline.

Throughout this period Sandra also developed her lifelong interest in history. She collected unique archive materials about the union and youth work and ensured that these were deposited safely. One particularly important initiative she took was to preserve the documents of Stanley Rowe, her professional and trade union mentor. In addition she researched the history of her Jewish relatives in Northern Ireland and remained active within the Jewish community.

Following the death of her mother, Sandra helped set up a Carers’ Project at Manchester Jewish Social Services, working part time but still running the Greater Manchester office, until she felt she could no longer do that as she needed to take on more work.  While still working on the Carers’ Project, she and an old friend, Lucette Tucker, who was a member at the Jewish Lads Brigade and Club, where Sandra had been a youth leader, set up in business together. They produced local guides to services for carers, gave workshops, ran a helpline for Bury Social Services, and generally took on any work that would help to improve the lives of carers.  This then became her full time employment, but the voluntary work for the Association always continued and she was instrumental in helping to set up many carers groups in the north west and further afield.

Sadly, after experiencing various strange symptoms for several years, five months before she intended to retire and do some of the things she had long waited to do, Sandra was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease.

Sandra was always humble but also always forceful and wickedly funny. When she discovered she had Motor Neurone Disease she remarked “there go my two hobbies, eating and talking.” The nurses in the home where she spent her last days loved her greatly but were also, of course, subject to various very clear instructions and written orders! Two generations of weak youth service management had experienced a worse fate.

During the whole time she was ill, Sandra never gave up on any of her interests, continuing to do as much as she could, using Lucette and others as her mouth, hands and feet. Happily she was able to write up to the end. Four days before her death she was planning a trip to the Lowry Gallery, which she had never seen.

We lose in Sandra a genuinely public servant and caring person whose commitment and hard work made us what we are. Others always came first for Sandra, not in a simply charitable way, but in a way that reminds us that social reform, justice, professional standards and collective solutions best enhance our individual capacity to care and make a difference.

Sandra touched the life of anyone who met her – she was a sister, a best friend and a mentor to many.  Through her work for carers, she also touched the lives of thousands and thousands of people who never even knew she existed but for whom she helped to make a better and more caring society.

Doug Nicholls
Lucette Tucker

First published January 2002. Last update: July 08, 2014