Home / General / This Day in Labor History: January 6, 1909

This Day in Labor History: January 6, 1909

Comments
/
/
/
870 Views

charles-moyer-darrow-collection-e1480699943536

On January 6, 1909, oral arguments before the Supreme Court concluded in the case of Moyer v. Peabody. The decision by the Court on January 18 gave official approval for the state militia or National Guard imprisoning people without the benefit of habeas corpus during a time of insurrection, the definition of which was of course left vague. This was one of many anti-worker Supreme Court decisions of the Gilded Age that made it extremely difficult for unions to operate with any sort of effectiveness.

In 1902, the Western Federation of Miners was organizing mill workers in Colorado City, Colorado. One company placed a spy among the organizers. This led the employer to fire 42 union members. Tensions rose at the mill and in February 1903, the WFM called a strike. Colorado governor James Peabody was an anti-union extremist who would use any method to eliminate the WFM, which had outraged employers in 1894 with an overwhelming victory in the state’s mines. Throughout Colorado that year, several strikes took place. Peabody worked with employers and private detective agencies such as the Baldwin-Felts, Thiel Agency, and of course the Pinkertons. Peabody called out the Colorado militia in response to the Colorado City strike, leading miners in Telluride and Cripple Creek to walk off their jobs. Mass arrests of strikers began that fall. Among those arrested was Charles Moyer, president of the WFM. Moyer had done nothing more than travel to Telluride to support the strike and sign a poster denouncing the mass arrests. He was then arrested for desecrating the American flag. This ridiculous charge allowed him to be released the next day, but he was immediately rearrested without any charges.

wfm-colorado-strikes-1903-1904-the-bull-pen-e1480699693841

The strike was soon crushed by Colorado and Peabody’s forces, but Moyer fought the obviously unconstitutional arrest he faced. He petitioned for a write of habeas corpus to a Colorado court. He received it but the Colorado attorney general refused to honor it. He appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled that his constitutional rights had not been violated by his arrest for supporting a strike. He then appealed to the U.S. District Court based in Missouri. These judges overturned the state court and granted him the writ once again on July 5, 1904. This finally forced Peabody to let Moyer out of jail. Moyer wanted full exoneration so he took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. It eventually accepted it, with oral arguments taking place on January 5 and 6, 1909. By this time, Moyer had survived the framing of he and Big Bill Haywood for the 1905 murder of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, thanks to the extremely shoddy case and the defense skills of Clarence Darrow leading to the rare court victory for unions during these horrible years.

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision for the unanimous court. The decision completely ignored whether the strike was an insurrection. It gave the governor complete discretion in making this determination, effectively saying that if the governor called out the National Guard, there was in fact an insurrection. He wrote, “But it is familiar that what is due process of law depends on circumstances. It varies with the subject-matter and the necessities of the situation.” And while it makes some sense for law to have limited flexibility dependent upon the particulars of a given situation, in this situation Holmes was giving employers and their bought politicians carte blanche to do whatever they wanted to labor unions. So long as there was an insurrection, then the governor could call out the state militia or National Guard and have them act accordingly. He left open the possibility than an exceedingly lengthy time behind bars might be open to another challenge but that was not what Moyer was after. This decision also avoided any of the sticky constitutional questions–since the states cannot declare war, can the executive of a state declare a state of war to exist? But as was common for Holmes, he found ways to exclude ideological or racial minorities from full citizenship; unfortunately, he was frequently joined in the Gilded Age Supreme Court by his colleagues.

Holmes’ decision in Moyer v. Peabody helped to radicalize the labor movement, especially in areas that had already seen the iron fist of state violence. With Holmes giving governors the right to use violence at will, moderate unionists had a harder time telling workers that capitalism might work for them. The Industrial Workers of the World would build their case for radical syndicalism upon this point, up to the point where the IWW was itself crushed by massive state-sanctioned violence, including the government allowing employers to do what they wanted to unions and with government crushing workers defending themselves against that violence.

The case was so shoddy that the Court largely ignored it. In 1932, it revisited the ability of a governor to unilaterally decide to call a strike an insurrection, when in Sterling v. Constanin, it decided that the governor of Texas doing the same as Peabody was not constitutional. That is until 9/11. Then the Bush administration was all over it because of the possibility to justify indefinite detention whenever the government declares a state of insurrection. It was heavily discussed in the 2004 case of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and remains an extremely threatening decision to workers today as Republicans seek to return the nation to the Lochner years. And the Moyer v. Peabody years as well.

Although Charles Moyer eventually broke from Haywood and the IWW, he remained deeply involved in union politics for many years. He was in Hancock, Michigan when the Italian Hall disaster took place in 1913 and rallied the WFM in nearby Calumet to take care of their own, although this had the effect of telling impoverished survivors to not take much needed charity. While in Calumet, he was beaten and deported from the town while bleeding from his wounds. The state did nothing to find who did this to him. He continued to lead the former WFM, now Mine, Mill, until 1926, dying in obscurity and largely forgotten in 1929.

This is the 206th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • Cheerfull

    Holmes venerated power and its application to control society. Ultimately I think it’s his free speech decisions that were an aberration from his other jurisprudence and not the other way around.

    • Matt

      Right – Holmes is mostly awful, writing a number of “important” anti-liberal decisions. While I don’t agree with all of it (it’s weak on philosophy), Albert Alschuler’s book on Holmes, _Law without Values_ is pretty good on this. He argues quite convincingly that the late decisions that give Holmes a good reputation among liberals are the aberration, mostly due to the by then very old Holmes falling (thankfully) under the domination of Luis Brandeis, who was the real force of those decisions. Most of Holmes’s own work is awful, semi-fascist stuff that liberals should deplore.

      • Just_Dropping_By

        A point made by H. L. Mencken about 87 years ago, specifically including Moyer v. Peabody:

        In Moyer vs. Peabody it appears that the Governor of a State, “without sufficient reason but in good faith, ” may call out the militia, declare martial law, and jail anyone he happens to suspect or dislike, without laying himself open “to an action after he is out of office on the ground that he had not reasonable ground for his belief.” And in Weaver vs. Palmer Bros. Co. there is the plain inference that, in order to punish a theoretical man, A, who is suspected of wrong-doing, a State Legislature may lay heavy and intolerable,burdens upon a real man, B, who has admittedly done no wrong at all.

        I find it hard to reconcile such notions with any plausible concept of Liberalism. They may be good law, but it is impossible to see how they can conceivably promote liberty. My suspicion is that the hopeful Liberals, frantically eager to find at least one judge who was not violently and implacably against them, seized upon certain of Mr. Justice Holmes’s opinions without examining the rest, and read into them an attitude which is actually as foreign to his ways of thinking as it is to those of Mr. Chief Justice Hughes. Finding him, now and then, defending eloquently a new and uplifting law which his colleagues proposed to strike off the books, they concluded that he was a sworn advocate of the rights of man. But all the while, if I do not misread his plain words, he was actually no more than an advocate of the rights of law-makers. There, indeed, is the clue to his whole jurisprudence. He believes that the law-making bodies should be free to experiment almost ad libitum, that the courts should not call a halt upon them until they clearly pass the uttermost bounds of reason, that everything should be sacrificed to their autonomy, including, apparently, even the rights of man. If this is Liberalism, then all I can say is that Liberalism is not what it was when I was young.

        http://www.unz.org/Pub/AmMercury-1930may-00122

  • Hercules Mulligan

    I was just re-reading the Steunenberg trial post after this one, and oh man, I’d forgotten that there were a few comment threads ranting about union thugs and assassins. Good times.

    Anyway, Thiel Agency, eh? Any relation?

    • JonH

      Probably not, Peter Thiel is German. Maybe a common ancestor.

    • When I came on board, there were a sizable number of commenters outraged about it because their beloved space of what they considered SERIOUS LIBERALISM was not polluted by a horrible leftist talking about unions. Those people all pretty much went away because what SERIOUS LIBERALISM meant to them was all the social and cultural liberalism, but conservative economic policies.

  • Pingback: This Day in Labor History: April 9, 1923 - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money()

It is main inner container footer text