He worked at various mines in the Coeur d'Alene district and in Butte, Montana before moving to Wardner, Idaho. He joined the Wardner Miners' Union in 1888 and was elected its corresponding secretary.
The mines reopened two months early, but wages had been slashed by 15 percent. The miners struck. The owners offered to restore wages to their previous levels but refused to recognize the union, an offer Boyce and the other union leaders rejected. When three scab workers were forced to join the union by a mob of miners (a fourth fled the county), the Coeur d'Alene Mine Owners' Association obtained an injunction from the United States district court at Boise, Idaho, preventing anyone from interfering with the working of the mines. The mine owners began importing scabs at the rate of 16 workers a day from outside the region. Company militia provided protection. (Idaho's state constitution contained a prohibition against the creation or use of private militia, but the law was not enforced.)
Random incidents of violence heightened the tension: A guard exchanged words with a miner and was whipped. Two drunk guards picked a fight with a group of miners in a local bar. Three guards armed with rifles threatened a miners' camp. Late in the evening of Sunday, July 10, the miners discovered that their union secretary, Charles Siringo, was a mine owner spy hired from the Pinkerton Agency. During that evening and into the early morning hours of July 11, armed miners surrounded the shuttered Frisco mill of the Gem mine. A firefight broke out. During the gun battle, miners dropped a barrel of gunpowder down the flume of the mill; the powderkeg exploded, destroying the mill and killing a non-union miner.
The mine owners demanded that Governor N. B. Willey, a former mine manager, proclaim martial law. Although violence in the region had ended, Willey called out the National Guard. President Benjamin Harrison ordered federal troops to back up the Idaho state troops. Martial law lasted four months.
Nearly 600 miners were arrested and confined in a large outdoor prison, or bullpen. But since most of the local inhabitants were miners or sympathized with them, the state had little chance of obtaining convictions.
Several union leaders, however, were arrested for violating the district court's injunction—Ed Boyce among them. Boyce and the other union officials were confined in the Ada County Jail.
Boyce served a six-month jail term for contempt of court for his role in the 1892 Coeur d'Alene miners' strike, and was blacklisted by the mine owners.
After his release in 1893, Boyce prospected for a time in the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana before returning to Coeur d'Alene. He obtained work in the mines and was elected president of the Coeur d'Alene Executive Miners' Union, a post he held until 1895.
Although not present for its founding, Boyce attended the WFM's second convention in 1894 and was elected to its executive board. With its headquarters in Coeur d'Alene, nearly all the mines in the Idaho panhandle except for the Bunker Hill and Sullivan Mine recognized the union. Still, the WFM barely survived the next three years.
Senate bill fifty six provides for no class, no special legislation, but under its provisions those relentless persecutors, known as corporations, are prevented when they discharge an employee from following him with a blacklist and depriving him of the means of earning an honest living in another part of the state….Why do you not produce some argument against it to show that it should not become a law? No, it is not necessary: you of the Republican party have the votes to kill the bill and that is all you desire. But remember these words: the laboring men of Idaho have asked you or bread and you give them a stone: we ask you for justice and you treat us with scorn, but the day is fast approaching when your action will be condemned by every man who has one drop of manly blood in his veins.
But the Populists were unable to pass the legislation they desired, and Boyce—disillusioned with the political process—quit after one term.
In 1896, Boyce was elected president of the Western Federation of Miners. He served until 1902. James Maher was elected WFM secretary-treasurer the same year. Boyce and Maher worked well together. They pumped life into the faltering federation, and the WFM began a period of rapid growth.
William "Big Bill" Haywood heard Boyce make a speech in that first year as president of the WFM, and Haywood decided to become a union member. Haywood later became WFM president, and a major figure in the American labor movement.
In late 1899, Boyce established the WFM's journal, the Miner's Magazine. The first issue came out in early 1890.
I deem it important to direct your attention to Article 2 of the Constitutional Amendments of the United States—'the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.' This you should comply with immediately. Every (local) union should have a rifle club. I strongly advise you to provide every member with the latest improved rifle, which can be obtained from the factory at a nominal price. I entreat you to take action on this important question, so that in two years we can hear the inspiring music of the martial tread of 25,000 armed men in the ranks of labor.
Boyce quickly moved to abandon the conservative approaches practiced by most nascent mine unions at the time. He came to believe that class warfare made trade unionism obsolete and came out in favor of militant industrial unionism.
In 1898, Boyce, a strong believer in industrial unionism, led the WFM to found the Western Labor Union. The Western Labor Union (later the American Labor Union) was established in direct opposition to the craft-oriented AFL, and included workers from all industries.
Boyce was charged with conspiring to blow up the concentrator. Boyce had been in Wardner conferring with local union officers only a week before the explosion. In 1906, former union member and Boyce business associate Harry Orchard told a court that he knew Boyce had planned and approved the bombing of the Bunker Hill and Sullivan Mine. Governor Steunenberg told a United States House of Representatives Committee on Military Affairs that he was convinced Boyce had "inaugurated or perfected this conspiracy by, choosing 20 men from different organizations in that county and swearing them. These 20 men chose one each and swore him, and the 40 each chose a man and swore him, and the 80 each chose a man and swore him. In that way there were at least 160 men in this conspiracy to do this thing, sworn to secrecy.
Boyce denied the charges, and no indictment was ever issued. But the influence of the Western Federation of Miners in Idaho had nearly been destroyed, and its leaders dispersed.
Beginning in 1900, Boyce also edited the WFM journal, Miners Magazine. He left the position when he retired as union president in 1902.
There can be no harmony between organized capitalists and organized labor. Our present wage system is slavery in its worst form. … Advise strikes as the weapon to be used by labor to obtain its rights, and you will be branded as criminals who aim to ruin the business interests of the country. Change from the policy of simple trades unionism that is fast waning, and you will be told that your action is premature, as this is not the time. Pursue the methods adopted by capitalists and you will be sent to prison for robbery or executed for murder. Demand, and your demands will be construed into threats of violence against the rights of private property calculated to scare capital. Avail yourself of your constitutional rights and propose to take political action, and you will be charged with selling out the organization to some political party. Counsel arbitration, and you will be told that there is nothing to arbitrate. Be conservative, and your tameness will be construed as an appreciation of the conditions thrust upon you by trusts and syndicates. Take what action you will in the interests of labor, the trained beagles in the employ of capital from behind their loathsome fortress of disguised patriotism will howl their tirade of condemnation.
Boyce also urged the WFM to slowly buy up mines and mining company stock, to replace the wage system with union-owned mines.
Eleanor worked part-time in the Denver headquarters of the WFM as a volunteer. She often wrote to her father about mining or smelting methods her husband had seen, suggesting that they might be useful at the Hercules mine. The Days and their business partners were friendly to labor organizations (although that attitude would change during World War I), and Ed Boyce's marriage was a happy one.
Boyce declined renomination as WFM president in 1902. He had become disillusioned with mismanagement in some WFM locals. But strong opposition to his continuing presidency had emerged in the powerful Butte Miners' Union, Local 1 of the WFM. A dwindling union treasury convinced him that he could not fight the battles he wished any longer.
In his farewell address, Boyce still remained the firebrand: "There are only two classes of people in the world. One is composed of the men and women who produce all; the other is composed of men and women who produce nothing, but live in luxury upon the wealth produced by others. Socialism, he still argued, was the only way "to abolish the wage system which is more destructive of human rights and liberty than any other slave system devised.
Boyce recommended that Bill Haywood and Charles Moyer assume leadership of the rapidly growing organization.
But Boyce gradually separated himself from organized labor, and eventually declined to discuss his part in the miners' union.
The Boyces moved to Wallace, Idaho, and then in 1909 to Portland, Oregon. Boyce became an avid reader of social theory and Irish poetry. The Boyces lived quietly, often passing the whole day sitting in the same room reading. Eleanor Boyce took an interest in art and became a member of the Portland Art Association. The Boyces also donated freely to a number of local charities.
Ed Boyce invested in the luxurious Portland Hotel Company in 1911, as well as in other real estate ventures in the city. He was the Portland Hotel's vice-president from 1920 to 1929 and its president from 1930 to his death 1941. In 1936, Ed Boyce was elected president of the Oregon Hotel Association. On December 31, 1923, the Hercules mine partnership was dissolved and the Hercules Mining Company (now Day Mines, Inc.) incorporated in Delaware. Eleanor Day Boyce was the largest stockholder.
Eugene V. Debs wrote a month later that Boyce had been "virtually forgotten by the officials of the organization he served at a time when it required real men to speak out for labor."