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Unison convenor Mandy Berger retires with a message: Join a union

She had a dramatic start in life after she was born in a cab on the outer ring of Regent’s Park.

26 September, 2019 — By Samantha Booth

Unison convenors Mandy Berger and Barry Walden plan to go traveling in their Arsenal-theme camper van [All party photos: Lucy Kerr]

A HOUSING officer who is retiring after three decades at the Town Hall has lamented that young council workers are not signing up to trade unions.

Mandy Berger, has spent two decades as a convenor with Unison in Camden and more than 30 years working for the council, was given a fond farewell at a leaving party on Friday.

But the 60-year-old said it was “gutting” that the workforce did not have more muscle to fight back against jobs cuts.

“It’s really hard for me to think some young people have never had experiences with a trade union,” she said. “I have experienced victories through strike action, I’ve experienced what collective action can get you. But there are so many young people in the workforce who have never experienced that and say, ‘why would I join a union?’”

During the late 1980s, Ms Berger led a seven-week strike in the building department over extra work that staff were given with no extra pay. She later led another strike – this time 17 weeks in the housing department – arguing estate officers could not cope with the workload. She said she wanted to become a shop steward – at the time for the union NALGO – because she was a “conscientious lefty” who fought for “what was right”.

Mandy Berger at her leaving party

But it is becoming harder to replicate past successes, she warned, blaming “anti-trade union laws” and bureaucracy.

Ms Berger said: “If you look at the strikes that I was involved in, it was the brilliance of ‘we are angry and we are angry now’, a show of hands, we are showing you how angry we are and we are going out. “But now, if you’re very angry now, it’s going to take two weeks to persuade the region to agree a ballot and the ballot is in the next two months. Sorry, by then there are jobs gone.”

She added: “Us in local government, we haven’t got the muscle we had back then. They can cover everything now. If there’s three months leading up to a strike, they can sort it out in terms of cover.”

One of the biggest – and her favourite – campaign was the success in stopping Camden hiving off control of its council homes to an Arms-Length Management Organisation (Almo) in 2005.

Tony Blair’s government was widely accused of blackmailing the council by insisting it would only invest in creaking estates if tenants agreed to transfer management of the stock, a move that was seen as “back door privatisation”. Camden tenants momentously voted against the switch.

“It was a huge amount of money to invest and we were saying, ‘fight the government for the money, but don’t create the Almo’,” said Ms Berger. During the miners’ strike in the 1980s, she helped organise Camden Council’s minibuses to take goods to the families of a twinned mine in Bentley.

Ms Berger was among union members who walked out of the Tony Blair speech at the TUC conference over the Iraq War.

She said she did not regret the protest but added: “I’ve never felt like a little schoolgirl and the action the union can take against you is really quite severe, but I was still proud. “As I started to phone up people here [in Camden] they said, ‘we assumed you would, that’s just you, don’t worry about it’.”

Ms Berger had a dramatic start in life after she was born in a cab on the outer ring of Regent’s Park.

Her mother was Grace Berger-Tuchfeld, who used their home in Camden Town as the meeting place for the precursor of the anti-Apartheid movement in the 1950s.

Her husband, Barry Walden, is due to retire from his role as a commissioner in children’s services and joint chair of the Camden Unison Branch later this year. The couple hope to go travelling together in their beloved red and white camper van, named after Arsenal legend Charlie George.


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