Leon Levy was born on 7 August 1929 in Johannesburg to Mary and Mark Levy, immigrants from Lithuania. Levy and his twin brother Norman Levy were the youngest of four children. Born just two months after the Wall Street Crash of October 1929, he was educated in Johannesburg. He began work at the age of 16 and became an active trade unionist, serving as secretary of the National Union of Laundering, Cleaning and Dyeing Workers and the Transvaal Food Canning and Allied Workers (NULCDW). Levy was a key figure in the trade union movement in South Africa and later in industrial relations in the United Kingdom.
In the mid 1950s he was part of a small group of progressive trade unionists who pushed for the formation of the first non-racial trade union federation in South Africa. These aspirations were realised in 1955 with the launch of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), where Levy was elected president and remained in that position for nine years. The predecessor of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), SACTU was involved not only in the day-to-day concerns with wages and better working conditions, but also in the wider liberation struggle. For this reason, SACTU was firmly aligned with the other Congresses and participated in many of their campaigns, including the Congress of the People in Kliptown in 1955. SACTU had an affiliated membership of 53,000 workers of which 38,791 were Africans.
Levy was secretary of the South African Peace Council from 1951 to 1961 as well as the left-wing Johannesburg discussion Club. He was also a member of the South African Congress of Democrats and served as SACTU’S representative on the National Consultative Committee, which directed the activities of the Congress Alliance. As SACTU's president he was one of the signatories of the Freedom Charter, along with other Congress leaders.
As a result of his opposition to Apartheid rule, Levy was repeatedly placed under banning orders and confined to the magisterial district of Johannesburg. In 1956, along with many others, including his twin brother Norman Levy, he was charged with high treason and eventually acquitted. Levy was one of a large group of activists arrested after the declaration of the State of Emergency in 1960, he shared a prison van with fellow activist Helen Joseph (the only two White people who served on the Treason Trial for the full four period of almost five years from 1956-1961) when they were relocated to Pretoria for the trial. After serving a period of time in solitary confinement, he returned to trade union work, but was forced to go into exile in the United Kingdom in 1963 after his arrest under the 90-days without trial. Levy was the first person to be detained without trial.
While in England, Levy divided his time between industrial relations activism and university study. As a result of a scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford he was able to pursue his interests in personnel and industrial relations and was associated with many major industrial disputes of the time.
After his return to South Africa in the post Apartheid period, he played a key role in COSATU’s submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on business and apartheid and published several works relating to trade unions and labour relations issues. He joined the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) in 1999 and has served as a senior full time Commissioner for the past 12 years. He is also a member of the Board of the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) and a principal advocate of its pan-African vision.