August 7, 2022

Gus Tyler, Firebrand of Labor Movement, Dies at 99

He tumbled through life like a Saul Bellow character, full of analytic thought and urban vitality. He wore multifarious hats: pamphleteer, professor and poet, but insisted on defining himself with a single word: agitator.

He became one as a teenager, throwing burrs at police horses during socialist demonstrations. And as a leader of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union for decades, he helped shape labor’s contribution to the postwar welfare state. His most powerful weapons were words, in books, newspaper columns, radio commentaries and speeches he wrote for labor chieftains.

His intellectual output was diverse, but Mr. Tyler tended to come back to one theme: the importance of democracy in unions, and the importance of unions to democracies. He pushed for government-sponsored health care and was a leader in the fight to reapportion voting districts so that cities were better represented.

A. H. Raskin, the labor expert who was a reporter for The New York Times, called Mr. Tyler one of the true intellectuals of the trade union movement. The historian Bernard Bellush wrote, “There are those who say that the history of the democratic left in America since World War I is the history of Gus Tyler.”

Mr. Tyler died on June 3 in Sarasota, Fla., at the age of 99, his nephew Jonathan Tilove said — 21 years shy of his goal of outliving Moses.

But he did see a promised land of sorts: his first job was at The Jewish Daily Forward when it was a big-circulation, left-leaning Yiddish daily. He threw himself into the 1930s brawls of Stalinists, Trotskyists and all manner of leftists before fighting some of the same people in the 1940s to kick Communists out of liberal veterans’ groups.

He was born Augustus Tilove to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in October 1911, on the top floor of a six-story tenement in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. He later changed his last name to honor Wat Tyler, leader of a 14th-century English peasant rebellion.

Mr. Tyler’s mother, Dora, started working in Lower East Side sweatshops at 10.

“As far as my mother was concerned, socialism was what God ordained,” Mr. Tyler said in an interview with New York Newsday in 1988. “You didn’t learn it from Marx or anybody; it was just the natural thing. People are people and they shouldn’t be rich and they shouldn’t be poor. I just thought this was the way you live. You’re supposed to be a socialist and ultimately the whole world goes socialist.”

By 16, Mr. Tyler was editing the newspaper of the Young People’s Socialist League. He progressed to New York University, where a professor asked why he had read all six volumes of Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Because he was a revolutionary, he replied, and was eager “to know how empires have been toppled in the past.”

Mr. Tyler graduated in 1933 and was offered a job at The Forward as assistant labor editor. He had no experience, but the newspaper’s labor editor, Louis Schaffer, justified hiring him with the comment, “You’re Jewish, a socialist and smart — you’ll learn.”

Daniel Bell, the social thinker who was also involved in leftist politics during this period, described the young Mr. Tyler in his book “Marxian Socialism in the United States” (1996) as “a brilliant but mercurial dialectician.” In 1936, Mr. Tyler denounced President Franklin D. Roosevelt as “a subtle ruler for capitalism” who “will lead us into war and fascism.” But by January 1941, he was supporting Roosevelt’s policy of aiding Britain against Hitler, even though Hitler was then allied with Communist Soviet Union.

Some leftists accused him of ideological impurity. In the publication Socialist Appeal, Max Shachtman, then a Marxist theorist (he later moved to the right), titled a 1937 article “The Politics of Gus Tyler — A Genuine Case of Rotten Liberalism in the Party.”

Within a year after joining The Forward, Mr. Tyler moved to the garment workers union. For more than 40 years he headed the union’s political and educational wings and was assistant to four union presidents, including the longtime leader David Dubinsky.

Mr. Tyler’s wife of more than 60 years, Marie, died three years ago. He is survived by his son, David; his daughter, Erica DiSalvo; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. In his columns for The Forward, Mr. Tyler liked to evoke a vanished New York, where immigrants huddled in tenements, the rich luxuriated in mansions and revolution hung in the sooty air. And for many Jewish New Yorkers, The Forward gave voice to that ferment.

In 2007, to commemorate The Forward’s 110th anniversary, he wrote about his mother erupting one day in anger when a fishmonger handed her a purchase wrapped in a newspaper. “What’s the matter, lady?” he asked.

“It’s The Forward,” she huffed. “If you have to wrap the fish in paper, use The Times.”

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