The leader of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union reflects on his long life in the American labor movement, and the role of labor in the new global economy with Bill Moyers.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Gus Tyler began his career as an activist, an intellectual agitator in behalf of working men and women. An agile organizer and prolific writer, Tyler helped make the International Ladies Garment Workers Union one of the most progressive in organized labor.
Now in his late 70s, he is assistant president of the union, and works to preserve the ILGWU’s influence at a time when garment industry jobs are dwindling and American manufacturing is on the decline. We talked in New York City about the new global economy and labor’s place in it.
[interviewing] What is the role for unions in this new world that’s coming, because we’ve seen unions lose their bargaining strength, we’ve seen job security go by the way. We see a lot of criticism-you ask a lot of people what they think about unions today and they say, “Well, the mob and the Mafia are featherbedding,” or “Guys walking out because they want another coffee break, I don’t get a coffee break,” they say, “so why should they get a coffee break?” There are not any revolutionary unions left in this country, with the possible exception of Cesar Chavez’s union, and maybe down in the ranks of the garment workers.
GUS TYLER: Well, unions today are on the defensive. This is not the first time. The reasons why unions are at the present time on the defensive goes quickly-something like this. The unions have had a history of ups and downs, starting all the way back in colonial times to the present. The ups coincide with rapid economic growth. The downs coincide with sluggishness and with depressions. We have, since the 1970s, been living with a very, very sluggish economy, and during a period of slow economic growth unions do not grow. That’s reason number one.
Reason number two, historically the base of unions in the United States was goods production, primarily manufacture. And manufacture in the United States has been on the decline, not only as a percentage of the total labor force, but also absolutely. The number of people engaged in manufacture have been on the decline, and since that was a traditional base, the unions have lost that traditional base.
The unions in the service sector -and the service sector is expanding -those unions are growing and grow very, very rapidly. The largest unions in the United States are in the service sector, and probably the largest are going to be in public employment. So those unions grow. However, growth has not yet moved more rapidly than decline, so by and large the number has run down.
There is a third change that has taken place, and that is the constant movement of the economy. At one time, the economy, which was urban economy, was Northeast, and the labor movement was very strong in the Northeast. Then the Midwest. And in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, the strength of the labor movement was Northeast and Midwest, and some of it on the West Coast. The economy has moved around, so that the South, where they don’t have a great union tradition, has now become increasingly urbanized. However, the mentality of the employees there has not yet become quite that urbanized; that’s a matter of time, that’s another factor.
Fourthly, we have had huge waves of immigration, some of it legal, some of it illegal, and the illegals are afraid to organize, for understandable reasons, and even those who come here legally, they come here and they’re so pleased just to be able to live here safely and get any kind of an income, they’re not going to rush to join the unions. Now, all four of these come together, plus a fifth factor, and that is a purely political factor, starting with Nixon in office, and that is the many Republican presidents we’ve had who have had the power to appoint judges and labor boards that oversee labor management relationships. And whereas during the periods when you had Democratic presidents, these appointees normally were more friendly to the unions, the Republican appointees tend to be less friendly. And now you take all five of these factors and roll them together, a sluggish economy, a decline in manufacture, the movement of industry from North to South, the waves of immigration which gives you a labor surplus and a very, very difficult one to organize, and then also the-a government that is not friendly. It’s a period of decline.
BILL MOYERS: Well, those are five reasons, six reasons, but what about another? Has the American worker priced himself or herself out of the market?
GUS TYLER: No, I really don’t think so, and as a matter of fact, if what we’re talking about price out of the world market, absolutely not so, ever since we have devaluated the dollar, because at the present time, if you were to compare wages in the United States in manufacture, let’s say, with wages in Japan or Germany, we’re not at the top. They’re paying better because the value of the dollar has been going down. So if you’re talking about international competition-in terms of the domestic economy, workers certainly are not pricing themselves out of the market for the very simple reason that since, really, 1968 down to the present, the take-home buying power of the American worker has been going down, down, down, constantly. And one of the reasons I think that we are not growing as we should be growing as an economy in the United States is that the take-home pay of the wage and salary people in the United States has been on the decline. The most recent figures I’ve seen on income distribution are quite disturbing. It shows the bottom 80 percent, the bottom 80 percent of the United States from 1981 to 1988 has been losing ground, in terms of disposable income in real dollars.
Well, if you want to maintain an economy, the wages should be higher, not lower. A striking example, the minimum wage was $3.35, it was set in 1981. It was unchanged until 1989. They’re not pricing themselves out of the market.
BILL MOYERS: But American companies are sending more and more abroad for the things they bring here and sell because they are produced by workers making even less.
GUS TYLER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Mexico, Korea, Taiwan, on and on.
GUS TYLER: Yeah. But there’s no way for us to compete with them, and that is the big problem that I think we face now for the 21st century. If you have somebody who’s at a sewing machine in the United States making $3.35 an hour at the old minimum, and which we thought was quite inadequate, we’re going to have to bring it up to something close to $4.00, that person has to compete with somebody in Bangladesh who is doing the same work at 11 cents an hour. How does one compete against 11 cents an hour?
BILL MOYERS: You can’t do it. So is there a place in the American economy for those people in your union who are skilled at sewing machines?
GUS TYLER: I wish that there were some other place that they could go. When this problem first emerged, which was some time in the 1960s, early 1960s, and we raised the question, people said, “Don’t worry about it, so your people will lose their jobs at sewing machines.” And I said, ”What will they do?” ”Well, they will go into electronics, they will be putting together radios and TV.” Well, so we looked for them to get jobs in radio and TV and we found that the radio and TV business was folding up in the United States, and we said-well, we were told, “That’s labor-intensive, they’ll get jobs in the capital-intensive industry.” What is the capital-intensive industry? The capital intensive industry is auto and steel. So we know where auto and steel went. So now where do they go? “They’ll go to high-tech.” High-tech. Well, you know, high-tech, you think, “That’s fancy stuff and it’s high wages.” Most of the jobs in high-tech are not in the software or in designing the hardware. Most of the jobs are just making those little wafers, repetitive little things…
BILL MOYERS: Very intensive, boring work.
GUS TYLER: -and it goes from Silicon Valley over to Singapore. So that isn’t there.
BILL MOYERS: I was struck, down at your union hall, by looking at the number of Hispanics and blacks, migrants who came from the plantations of the South many years ago, Latinos, Asians who’ve come here are now working at these jobs in the garment union, and their jobs are going back to the lands from which they or their fathers and mothers left.
GUS TYLER: Yes, but they’re not ready to go back and work under those same conditions.
BILL MOYERS: No. But what can the union do for these people now, because you’re up against, as you say, a threat of extinction, it seems to me, in the global competition?
GUS TYLER: It’s not a new problem and there are only one of two ways to go. It’s an ancient problem to us. I remember early on, this was about 1937, we were-one of our employers wasn’t paying very high wages, but he was paying a union wage, down at the bottom. He folded his plant and he decided to open up his plant in Mississippi. He was a nice kind of a guy, as a matter of fact, and I spoke with him, and I said, “What are you doing?” I said, “These people have worked for you for 15, 20 years. You’re leaving them high and dry and you’re going down to Mississippi?” And he says, “Hey, come on now, don’t be selfish.” He said, “I’m giving work to the people of Mississippi.”
Well, he thought about that one, you know, he felt that he was doing a noble deed. Well, what kind of a noble deed is it? People work for you 15 or 20 years and you leave them without a job, and that’s a noble deed? And you’re going down there, you’re getting the work done for half the cost to you and you’re making a bigger profit, that’s a noble deed? I guess in his head he thought it was a noble deed, but nobility and the rest of that aside, what does one do about it?
Well, we have a very simple thing. We could have come to our members in New York and said, “Look, instead of working at this union wage, work for 20 percent less, and he won’t move.” Okay. So you work at 20 percent less, and you reduce their standard of living, you’re reducing the collective buying power of the United States, you’re moving us more rapidly in the direction of another depression, so you can go the descending spiral kind of a way. There’s another way to go, which is the ascending spiral. And what we did was to say, “Okay, it’s going to take some time before we can organize these people in Mississippi. Meanwhile, we want to get the minimum wage in this country up to something like 25 cents an hour. And the prevailing wage down in Mississippi was like three or four cents an hour.
BILL MOYERS: This is how long ago?
GUS TYLER: 1937.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
GUS TYLER: I was there. And so we asked for a minimum wage. We got 25 cents as the minimum wage. But what we did was, instead of having a descending spiral, let’s start an ascending spiral. Let the thing start going up. Now, the minimum wage went to 25 cents, 40 cents, you know, where it is now-
BILL MOYERS: But here’s the reality you’re up against. Here-I brought this story from a recent newspaper. This is the reality you’re up against. “With a new surge of investment abroad, many American companies are shedding the banner of a national identity and proclaiming themselves to be global enterprises whose fortunes are no longer dependent on the economy of the United States. Executives increasingly speak as if the United States were no longer home port. ‘The United States does not have an automatic call on our resources,’ said the chief financial officer of the Colgate Palmolive Company, which now sells more toothpaste, soaps and other toiletries outside the United States than inside. ‘There is no mindset that puts this country first.'” That’s what you’re up against. They will go where they can get, understandably, that’s the way the sys-that’s the way it works. They will go where they can get the cheapest labor.
GUS TYLER: You have just read a very fascinating quote. And what you’re describing is really a deep coupling of the corporation from the country. You have an American corporation. What does that mean? It has an American charter. You go to the board of directors meeting, is everybody at the board of directors an American? No. A Dutch company just bought in, a Japanese investor bought in, British money is in there, Canadian money just picked up this department store. At the board of directors, you’re not talking to Americans. You’re talking to whoever bought it. Where is the operation? They’re carrying on operations all over the world.
This means that we are now moving into a new kind of an economy that I would say, within five, 10, 15 years will be dominated by corporate tycoons that really feel that no nation can tell them what to do because they have all of these portable resources to take their industry, their operation, and move them here to there. And if a government says to them, “Thou shalt do so-and-so,” they can say to the government, “Go fly a kite. You do it the way we want it or we are not putting our dollars into your economy at all.”
A number of years ago a man by the name of Raymond Vernon wrote a book in which he foresaw this. He’s at MIT or Harvard, he’s very good, and the book was entitled, Sovereignty at Bay. And what he was talking about is the corporation holding the sovereign at bay. The sovereign was no longer sovereign. Well, if he were to update his book, it would be Sovereignty in Decay.
BILL MOYERS: In decay.
GUS TYLER: In decay.
BILL MOYERS: Because national boundaries no longer mean-
GUS TYLER: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: -and national legislatures no longer have the power that they once did.
GUS TYLER: And corporations may do what they want to. Not because this is a more malevolent group of capitalists than in the past. That’s an irrelevant question. It’s due to fundamental changes in the nature of the mechanics of the universe in which we live. There have been revolutions in transportation and communication, materials handling and data processing which make it possible for huge worldwide corporations to use the entire world as if the world were a small town. And they could use all the resources of the world as if it were just their own factory. Fundamentally, the global corporation is an almost inevitable response to the scientific shrinking of the world. We live in a global village and the economies are global factories, except we don’t have a global mayor.
BILL MOYERS: So what’s the role in this of the labor union, the political activist? I mean, where do you direct your-the picture of you back in the ’30s, agitating and debating, who do you debate today?
GUS TYLER: Well-
BILL MOYERS: Who do you agitate against today? What do you protest for?
GUS TYLER: Okay. In three steps. Step number one, the United States. The United States still is in a position to say to major corporations, wherever they come from, we have certain standards and requirements, we expect you to live up to them. The reason that the United States is still able to do this is that we are, as of the moment that we speak, we still are the world market. The entire world depends upon the American market. If America were to go into depression, I’d give Japan one month. Europe can hold a little bit longer if there’s a united Europe, because they have kind of an internal market. But not very long. And so far as the Third World countries go, they just plunge. So long as we still are in a position -that’s the United States -where we are the world market, we can say: “Our doors are open, our doors are open to you. However, there are certain conditions that we make. You want your stuff to come into this country? We’re not going to accept it from any country that doesn’t grant freedom to their people to do so and so and so and so.” At least minimal, at least minimal.
We can go beyond that. We can say: “You want to bring a car into the United States, bring your car into the United States. However, we’d like to feel that there’s about 40 or 43 or 45 or 50 percent American labor content in it. You set whatever we think is reasonable. American labor content, you can get the parts from us, or you can give some of the assembly to us, whatever it is. We want to protect our working people. We’re not closing our market to you, we’re not protectionists. Enter our market. However, we’re not going to let you come in and ruin us.” And you can set your conditions, whatever the conditions may be, so long as we still are in this position. I don’t know how long we can be in this position. We are at the moment — that’s a very short-term answer. And by the way, I think Europe is going to do this. That’s exactly what I think Europe is going to do. And the European example takes us to a middle-range position. And the middle-range position says, “Look, things are becoming internationalized, we have to begin to behave in a more international kind of a way.”
Europe is doing it. Europe has decided that they cannot go on. They decided this a long time ago. They cannot go on as separate countries. And before we get to 1992, when we’re going to have this big United States of Europe, they’ve had their economic union going for some time, and what they’re doing after 1992 is really stepping it up and perfecting it. That’s going to be pretty much of a balanced economy. It can be almost a self-contained economy. It can represent a kind of a threat. What about the great international corporation? Won’t they do to Europe what they have been doing to the United States and other countries? Yes. But Europe will be in a stronger bargaining position. Nevertheless, Europe will face the same problem ultimately. And this is not an American problem, it’s not a labor problem. Because if this is permitted to happen, what will happen is the capital will go to those parts of the globe where wages are lowest, because that keeps down costs, where taxes are lowest, because that keeps down costs, where they’re going to get subsidies from the governments, because that keeps down costs, and where they can sell in protected markets. Because in that way they can overcharge from the protected market and dump on other markets.
What this means, in effect, however, is that investment will be withdrawn from those countries that are more prosperous and have more advanced social systems and will be moving down, down, down in that downward spiral and we get a global polarization of income. And the moment you have that, we’re back to the thing you’re speaking about earlier, namely, glut, because you don’t have your market for your market economy. The third period-
BILL MOYERS: What’s the middle term, the long range?
GUS TYLER: -the long range, we have to begin to think of ourselves as being citizens of the planet. That’s a difficult one. That’s a hard one.
Because instinctively, I feel, human beings are tribal. I’d also think that there is a learned social instinct. It’s a learned social instinct. So I don’t have to think of myself as the kid who was brought up on Hart Street in Brooklyn and ran with a gang of a given ethnic group. I’m an American. I can think of myself as being more than an American. I can think of myself as being part of western civilization, as world civilization. And I can not only think that way, I can act on it. I can act on it. I think that the human being’s involvement with something bigger than the tribe is a learned thing. It’s a learned thing that ultimately may become instinctive. That’s a conflict within human beings. I think it’s a thing that can be overcome.
We have in the United States, we’ve had it for many years, we were never a homogeneous nation. We were a polyglot nation, full of all kinds of tribes, and we have managed to remain as the United States of America. Europe, Europe was nothing for thousands of years but a battleground, with everybody cutting everybody else’s throat. You’re going to be the United States of Europe?
Well, there was a Russian empire, the united-the Soviet Union is falling apart, but I would not be surprised early in the 21st century to find a confederation of nations, not speaking Russian, whatever it is, a confederation of nations, replacing the totalitarian society. Sooner or later, through this terrible painful process of trial and error, I think that it can grow up to something resembling a cosmopolitan mentality.
BILL MOYERS: But it sounds nice to say we’ll learn to join the planet, to become planetary or to just develop a planetary, cosmopolitan civilization. But doesn’t it mean lower standards of living for the American worker? Because the universe of workers becomes larger and the American worker is competing with workers still willing, for a long time to come, to work for less wages, lower wages. And doesn’t that benefit that worker overseas, because you increase his or her earning power, and that becomes a market? So it seems to me the consequence is the possibility of a lower standard of living for the American worker.
GUS TYLER: By our seeing it as a planetary thing?
BILL MOYERS: Yes.
GUS TYLER: If the wages of the workers in those other countries rise and keep rising and keep rising and keep rising, it represents something resembling a long-term solution, provided there is not a surplus labor population on a planetary basis that’s easily accessible. And where we are now, there are literally billions who can underbid even those who are being paid the least. That is, to me, the central problem of the 21st century in terms of economies. I think that the ultimate solution will come out of the advanced nations. I think that they all understand this.
BILL MOYERS: Was it easier to be an idealist in the ’30s that it is today?
GUS TYLER: It’s easier to be an idealist when you live in a simple world of right and wrong, good and evil, socialism, capitalism and yes, it’s easier. It’s also easier because you feel that there’s just one thing you have to do, and you have fixed everything. We all look for the easy fix, and once you have your ideal solution, you’ve got the fix.
But let me add this, because I’m talking about a planetary solution. Don’t ever think that we’re going to have this world government, no. Why do I talk about a planetary solution? Do I ever think that we’re going to have this world government? No. Why do I talk about a planetary solution? Because if you don’t have ideals, then what is real becomes a nightmare. An ideal is a desirable, and unless you reach for the impossible, you can’t even achieve what is possible and desirable. Unless you work for the impossible, you move in the other direction.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve been doing that all your life.
GUS TYLER: It’s a nice exercise, it is very enjoyable and it also means that you have to be somewhat schizophrenic. You have to say, “I have the answer to the question,” and way down deep you know that after you found the answer, out of that answer will come millions of new questions. Okay. So then you’ll address yourself to the new questions.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From New York City, this has been a conversation with Gus Tyler. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on March 27, 2015.