Remembering Gus Tyler, a labor firebrand

He was a great American hero, who never had a complacent minute in his long, long life.

He was a great American hero, who never had a complacent minute in his long, long life.

The Sunday New York Times headline hit me hard: "Gus Tyler, 99, Firebrand of Trade Union Movement." To members of my generation, and especially those engaged by American struggles for justice and equal rights, Gus Tyler was a giant.

Born Augustus Tilove to Eastern European Jewish immigrants living in Brooklyn, N.Y., he changed his name to Tyler in honor of Wat Tyler.
who led a 14th-century English peasant rebellion.  His mother began work in lower East Side sweatshops at age 10.  At age 16, the Times
related, he was editing the Young People's Socialist League newspaper.  When President Franklin Roosevelt sought a second term in 1936, Tyler denounced him as a capitalist who would "lead us into war and fascism."  As many others on the Left began to do, however, he backed in 1941 FDR's support of Great Britain against Hitler. 

Soon he became an official of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, a powerhouse of liberalism in New York and nationally, leading its political and propaganda wings.  He never became ILGWU president but instead served as assistant to four presidents, including the legendary David Dubinsky, and as the unon's policy theorist.  He wrote prolifically and well.

As a young man in 1960s national politics, I periodically saw both Dubinsky and Tyler in New York and Washington, D.C.   There was no such thing as a "meeting" with either one of them.  An invitation to share a cup of coffee would turn into a several-hour discussion and occasional debate over ideas and policies.  Much later, in the early-to-mid-1980s, I served as president of the Democratic Party's unofficial think tank; one of my most active board members was Sol Chaikin, the ILGWU president at that time.   Gus Tyler thus was an active presence in our activity. 

I recall one occasion when we shared a room at a Social Democratic conference in Germany. After the day's conference-room discussions, everyone adjourned to a hotel bar, where discussion continued.  Back in the room, Tyler kept it going.  I fell asleep when he was still talking about some doctrinal fine point.

It seemed impossible that Tyler was 99.  I always thought of him as much younger.  His face was still unlined when I last saw him maybe 20 years ago.  He was handsome, vigorous, well dressed, and always articulate.  He could have been quite a lady's man, I always thought, but he was completely devoted to his wife Marie, who died three years ago.

Tyler represented what the present-day labor movement — and, for that matter, national politics — has largely lost.  He was engaged by ideas and totally committed to the achievement of a broad agenda of justice in this country and elsewhere. Some of that agenda, thanks to labor's leadership, became national policy in the civil-rights and Great Society years of the 1960s. Since then, both the labor movement and the national agenda have moved too greatly toward the achievement of narrow, self-interested objectives unrelated to the general welfare.  Take as an example the agendas of our state's teacher and public-employee unions at a time of economic and budgetary stress.

Gus Tyler died in retirement in Florida.  I can only imagine his daily routine in his later years.  He no doubt began his days reading everything available about world and national events.  From there, I can imagine phone calls to friends and maybe breakfast or lunch with like-minded, progressive New York refugees — meals which would last for hours as debate heated over the issue of the day.  If some issue moved him, no matter his age, I can see him taking to the streets to defy the status quo.

Gus Tyler never had a complacent minute in his long, full life.  He was a genuine American hero.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of