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Charles "Charlie" Moyer was an American labor leader and president of the Western Federation of Miners from 1902 to 1926. 

He led the union through the Colorado Labor Wars, was kidnapped and accused of murdering an ex-governor of the state of Idaho, and shot in the back during a bitter copper mine strike (Copper Country Strike of 1913–1914). He also was a leading force in founding the Industrial Workers of the World, although he later denounced the organization.

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Early life

Little is known about Moyer prior to 1893.[1] He was born near Ames, Iowa, and his mother died when he was just a year old. He attended public school but left after the fourth grade.[2]

Moyer headed West in 1872 and found work as a cowboy in Wyoming. He returned East in 1885 and settled in Chicago, Illinois. He committed robbery, and served a year in the Illinois State Penitentiary. After his release, Moyer became a miner at the Homestake Mine in Lead, South Dakota, and joined the Lead City Miners' Union. In 1893, the Lead City Miners' Union was one of several unions which formed the Western Federation of Miners.[1][2]

Moyer was elected to the Executive Board of the WFM in 1900. After President Ed Boyce declined to run again in 1902, Moyer was elected his successor.[1]

WFM presidency

Moyer was strongly committed to industrial unionism, and pushed the WFM to organize both underground and surface miners as well as all ancillary mine workers.[3]

Colorado Labor Wars

The poster "Is Colorado in America?", with signature by Charles Moyer (bottom, left), which led to his arrest in 1904. Moyer's push for industrial union organizing involved the union in what came to be known as the Colorado Labor Wars. In August 1902, the WFM organized mill workers in Colorado City, Colorado. The employers planted a labor spy in the union, and 42 union members were fired. Negotiations over the dismissals dragged on into 1903. On February 14, 1903, the WFM struck. The employers claimed a riot was in progress, and Governor James Peabody called out the Colorado militia to suppress the strike. Miners in Cripple Creek and Telluride also struck, and the militia was deployed in those cities as well. Mass arrests began in September 1903 which finally broke the strike.[4]

One of those arrested was Moyer. He had gone to Telluride to protest the mass arrests and deportation of miners. While there, he lent his signature to a WFM poster decrying the arrests. Moyer was arrested on March 28, 1904, for desecrating the American flag. He was released on bail, but re-arrested the following day on the orders of Adjutant General Sherman Bell of the state militia on charges of "military necessity". When Moyer successfully petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, the Colorado State Attorney General and the local district attorney refused to release him. Moyer appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court On June 6, 1904, the court ruled in In re Moyer, 35 Colo. 163, that it could not question the governor's finding that insurrection existed in Colorado and that Moyer had not been arrested or imprisoned in violation of his rights. Moyer appealed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Missouri, and obtained a writ of habeas corpus on July 5, 1904. Alarmed by the writ, Governor Peabody revoked the finding of insurrection the same day and ordered Moyer released by 3:45 p.m. (before the federal writ could be served). Moyer was released, but his case continued to the U.S. Supreme Court. On January 18, 1909, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the decision of the Colorado Supreme Court in Moyer v. Peabody, 212 U.S. 78. Writing for the majority, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. refused to question the governor's assertion of facts which led to the declaration of martial law or grounds for Moyer's arrest. Concluding that the governor's good faith would protect a person's constitutional rights, Holmes held that Moyer's civil liberties had not been infringed.[4]


The state's use of military power to crush union organizing drives convinced Moyer that no single union could be effective or successful. He concluded that only "one big union" linked to a strong political party could effectively counteract the anti-union power of the state and employers. Moyer subsequently became a strong supporter of the Socialist Party of America.[1]

In January 1905, Moyer participated in a conference in Chicago to consider whether the Socialist Party would be an effective vehicle for labor's goals. It was at this conference that the delegates decided to form a new union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). When the IWW was formed in Chicago on June 27, 1905, Moyer immediately affiliated the WFM with the new labor federation.[5]

The Haywood trial

In 1906, Moyer was implicated in the assassination of Frank Steunenberg, ex-Governor of Idaho. On December 30, 1905, Steunenberg, who had clashed with the WFM during several strikes, was killed by an explosion at his home in Caldwell, Idaho. Harry Orchard, a former WFM member who had once acted as Moyer's bodyguard, was arrested for the crime. Using coercion and intimidation (including restricted food rations and threats of immediate execution), Pinkerton agent James McParland wrung a 64-page confession from Orchard. The confession named Moyer and other WFM leaders as the instigators of the bombing plot.[6]

But Moyer was in Colorado, not Idaho. Idaho authorities were concerned that Orchard's confession would not be enough to persuade a judge to issue extradition papers. Acting in concert with law enforcement leaders, McParland perjured himself in order to convince a judge to issue the extradition papers against Moyer. McParland then traveled to Denver, Colorado, and arrested Moyer, WFM Secretary-Treasurer Bill Haywood, and union member George Pettibone.[7] On February 17, 1906, McParland forced the three men onto a special sealed train and brought them to Idaho.[6]

Haywood, represented by Clarence Darrow, stood trial on May 9, 1907. He was acquitted. Pettibone, defended by Orrin N. Hilton, was also tried and acquitted. Charges against Moyer were dropped.[6]


His experiences with the IWW led Moyer to the conclusion that the federation was too radical. Moyer was especially disturbed by the IWW's refusal to ally with or endorse any political party, which had been the key to Moyer's support for the creation of the IWW. In 1908, Moyer led the WFM out of the IWW, taking most of the IWW's membership (which belonged to the WFM) with him. Concerned that the WFM's reputation for radicalism was making it difficult to reach collective bargaining agreements, Moyer re-affiliated his union with the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1911.[1][3][5]

Moyer pushed for more traditional labor union policies in his last decade in office. He forced the union's locals to agree to contracts which expired after a set period of time.[8] He pushed resolutions through the WFM convention committing the union to the same limited legislative goals favored by the AFL such as the eight-hour day, a ban on child labor, and controls on immigration.[1][3][5] He also withdrew his support for the Socialist Party and adopted the policy of nonpartisanship advocated by Samuel Gompers.[1]

WFM membership declined sharply from 1911 to 1916. In part, this was due to the continuing intense opposition from mine owners in the West. But conflict with the IWW also led to significant membership losses. Historian Vernon H. Jensen has asserted that the IWW had a "rule or ruin" policy, under which it attempted to wreck local unions which it could not control. From 1908 to 1921, Jensen and others have written, the IWW attempted to win power in WFM locals which had once formed the federation's backbone. When it could not do so, IWW agitators undermined WFM locals, which caused the national union to shed nearly half its membership.[1][5][9] Paul Brissenden noted WFM dissatisfaction with the IWW in Jerome, Arizona in 1913, attributing some of the friction to the fact that the WFM was becoming more conservative, accepting contracts with employers and affiliating with the AFL, while the IWW was becoming more revolutionary.[10] (The IWW would not begin to accept contracts with employers until 1938.)[11] The greatest animosity between the two organizations occurred in Butte, Montana.[12]

Historian Melvyn Dubofsky, however, offers a different perspective. In Minnesota, for example, the miners went on strike in 1916 to abolish the contract system, to secure a minimum wage, and to end exploitation by the company. They approached the AFL and the WFM, both of which failed to respond. Dubofsky notes, "IWW headquarters had been advised of employee discontent on the eve of the [strike] ... and the IWW instantly had organizers on the spot." Dubofsky states that the walkout occurred without IWW involvement, and he describes the evidence for this as "incontrovertible". The IWW was approached for help and, according to Dubofsky, the IWW "achieved its aims not by coercion but by giving the striking miners leadership, funds, and publicity."[13]

With the companies and the press accusing the IWW of sending "outside agitators", M.E. Shusterich, one of the Mesabi Range strike leaders, attempted to "set the record straight":

This strike was not started by the I.W.W., but has been underway the past six years. We have appealed to every labor official in Minnesota to have the miners on the range organized, but we have been shuttled back and forth between the Western Federation of Miners and other organizations who passed us on again until finally the miners took things into their own hands and went out without organization.[14]

According to Marxist historian Philip S. Foner, the issues of socialism and industrial unionism — and more specifically, the AFL vs. the IWW — had been debated by the Minnesota miners since the WFM's Mesabi Range strike of 1907. Foner concluded that in the 1916 strike, "Most of the Range Finns ... backed the I.W.W."[15]

Whatever the reasons for the decline, the WFM was particularly hard hit in the copper mining industries of Michigan and Arizona, and in the WFM's stronghold around Butte, Montana.[1][5][9]

Copper Country Strike of 1913-1914

See: Charles Tanner's story.

During the bitter Copper Country Strike of 1913-1914 in Michigan, Moyer was assaulted — beaten and shot in the back by men in the employ of the mine owners. That evening, detectives from the city of Calumet escorted him, still bleeding, to a local train and "deported him" (e.g., ran him out of town). Moyer sought medical treatment in Chicago. State and Congressional investigations were unable to prove the identity of his assailants, and the crime went unsolved.

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Moyer under X-ray at St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago.

Union of Mine

In 1916, Moyer led a successful movement to change the union's name to the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (colloquially known as "Mine Mill").[1]

Retirement and death

Moyer was unable to reverse Mine Mill's declining membership. After a bitter internal struggle, Moyer and his entire executive board resigned in 1926.[1]

Moyer lived in relative obscurity until his death. He died in Pomona, California, on June 2, 1929.[1]

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