A biographical article by Mark Derby and Jay Miller of William E. Trautmann, an early and important member of the Industrial Workers of the World.
“I was born in a country considered to be free – in New Zealand,” said William Trautmann, when he accepted the position of general secretary at the IWW’s founding convention in Chicago in the summer of 1905. Although he left New Zealand at an early age and never returned, Trautmann seems never to have forgotten his connection with his country of birth. He would no doubt have been proud to learn that his many publications on industrial unionism strategies, and his achievements as a Wobbly organiser in the United States, became well-known and influential in New Zealand as well as in many other countries, and that a book published in New Zealand this year finally recognises his contribution to the rise of the Wobblies in his homeland.
William Ernest Trautmann was born on 1 July 1869 in Grahamstown, a gold rush settlement on the Coromandel Peninsula, in New Zealand’s North Island. The town was then just a year old but already had a population of 18,000, mostly miners who worked by candlelight to hack gold-bearing rock from poorly ventilated shafts in mines which bore their owners’ optimistic names – Queen of Beauty, Lucky Hit, Bright Smile. To prevent the theft of ore, those owners forced each miner to strip naked at the start and end of each 10-hour shift, and cross a passageway separating their street clothes from those they wore in the mine.
One of the first miners to arrive in Grahamstown in 1868 was the German-born Edmund Trautmann, who had earlier been a ‘miner, forty-niner’ in the California gold rush. By 1874 Edmund and his wife Augusta had four small children. In May of that year, during a graveyard shift, Edmund Trautmann died after entering a pocket of poisonous gas in the Crown Prince mine. His work mates formed a committee to send his ailing wife and her children, ranging in age from seven years to nine months, back to their relatives in Germany. Ernest, the second of these children, was left there in the care of a military orphanage while the rest of the family departed again, this time for New York.
Ten years later, at the age of 14, Ernest moved to Poland and began an apprenticeship in a brewery owned by a distant relative. The apprenticeship was pure peonage as Trautmann was required to work unlimited hours, at the beck and call of the brewmaster. After qualifying, he moved to Dresden, Germany, where he agitated on behalf of child workers in the bottling shops. He emerged from these experiences with an anarchist’s allegiance to individual liberty and a Marxist’s certainty in the class struggle.
Trautmann worked his way through Eastern Europe as far as Odessa in Russia before returning to Germany. En route he encountered traditions of European radical thought from which he would draw throughout his life. After agitating on behalf of the most abused workers in the brewery industry, he was expelled from Germany as a dangerous radical in 1890, and followed his family to the New World, which proved to be indistinguishable from the Old.
After settling in Massachusetts, Trautmann became active in the United Brewery Workers Union, the first major industrial union in the United States. In 1900, he became editor of the union’s German-English newspaper, Brauer-Zeitung, where his dedication to the principles of socialism and industrial unionism soon put him in conflict with the American Federation of Labor. His vocal opposition to the increasing political conservatism of the AFL cost him his position as editor, and he was forced out in the spring of 1905.
Between 1900 and 1905 Trautmann combined his experience of the U.S. labour movement with his knowledge of intellectual currents in the European working class to develop ideas which later formed the theoretical framework of the IWW. One labor historian has suggested Trautmann “played the most central role in the founding of the IWW... [H]e provided the ideological starting point of the revolutionary industrial unionism of the IWW.” In 1904 Trautmann was appointed to the three-member committee that drew up the Industrial Union Manifesto calling for the formation of the IWW “as the economic organization of the working class, without affiliation with any political party.” At the IWW’s founding convention in 1905, a succession of tributes testified to Trautmann’s broad knowledge of international labour movements, his dedication and his personal qualities (“he stands almost peerless in the way of a personal sacrifice to the interests of the working people”).
In its first years the IWW had fought numerous industrial skirmishes without winning a single major strike. Trautmann looked to break this pattern by concentrating his organising efforts among his fellow European migrant workers in the industrialised eastern states. In 1909 he told readers of the IWW newspaper the Industrial Worker, “I am off for McKees Rocks, perhaps to face the bullets of the foe.” McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, was a steel company town. When employers introduced an unpopular change to the pay system, five thousand workers, mostly eastern Europeans, spontaneously walked out of the mills. Violent clashes followed when the company’s private police force tried to bring in scab labour. As the violence escalated, the Pennsylvania state constabulary charged and clubbed picketing workers.
In response to a call from a group of exiled European revolutionaries, Trautmann arrived to head the strike organisation. He cautioned against further violence, but tensions in the town were already at breaking point. A gunfight broke out in which several strikers and five state troopers were killed, and Trautmann himself was arrested. Thousands of strikers thronged the town to demand his release and with a full-scale riot threatening, he was taken from his cell to an improvised courtroom, tried and acquitted. Two weeks later the strike was settled, the company compromising on most issues.
In the few exultant years following this victory Trautmann criss-crossed the eastern industrial states in response to a flood of requests to lead direct actions and set up IWW locals. In the northern winter of 1912, he joined Big Bill Haywood and other leading Wobblies as an organiser of the textile workers’ strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the legendary ‘Bread and Roses’ strike. The strikers, mainly women and children, were opposed by a mounted militia of vigilantes, local businesspeople and students, who rode down the picket lines with bayonets and batons. Using a pedal-powered printing press, Trautmann and his team deluged the militia with pamphlets, urging them, with some success, to covertly support the strikers.
The same period saw a surge of revolutionary industrial unionism in his homeland. As Trautmann had rightly observed in 1905, New Zealand at that time could only be “considered to be free.” A long period of liberal, mildly progressive government had introduced better conditions for workers, but required all unions to submit to compulsory arbitration of their disputes. This regime meant real wages fell during the early 20th century, and workers were chafing under a paternalistic form of state socialism. However, from about 1908 an influx of seasoned labour agitators from the United States, Canada, the UK and Australia introduced IWW-style direct action strategies and side-stepped the arbitration system by negotiating directly with employers, through strike action if necessary. The response from miners, wharf workers, drivers, labourers and thousands of other mainly unskilled workers was immediate and enthusiastic. Branches of the IWW were set up in major cities and mining towns, helped by the distribution of large quantities of revolutionary literature, some of it written or translated by Trautmann.
In 1912 a prolonged strike broke out just a short distance from Trautmann’s birthplace in the company town of Waihi, which was run by a foreign-owned gold-mining consortium. The Canadian Wobbly J.B. King played an active part on the strike committee. After several months, the company persuaded the government to send in large numbers of strikebreakers reinforced by armed and mounted police. These police were soon labelled ‘Cossacks’ by the strikers, a term first used to refer to the mounted troops at McKees Rocks. The police deliberately encouraged violent riots between the strikers and the scabs, which culminated in the death of striker F. E. Evans.
The following year a strike on the Wellington waterfront spread to most of the port cities of the country. The ‘Great Strike’ of 1913 saw the greatest civil unrest ever seen in New Zealand, before or since. Tens of thousands were on strike, headed by Wobblies such as the English-born Tom Barker who produced a weekly paper with regular articles in the Maori language. However they were confronted by police, military and large bands of strikebreakers from the rural districts, armed officially with long wooden batons and unofficially with Army revolvers. As at Waihi, this combination of state-sponsored violence and organised mass scabbery caused the defeat of the strike, and most of the Wobblies were forced to leave the country.
Trautmann’s autobiography shows that he considered his greatest achievement to be the many publications that helped spread the revolutionary industrial unionism movement throughout the world. Today, he would find that despite such efforts his country of birth remains unfree. Gold is still mined in the hills above Coromandel, where a vast and ugly open-cast mine disfigures a landscape which is otherwise one of the most beautiful in a very beautiful country. Some locals defend the mine for the jobs it provides, yet the average income for Coromandel people is lower than elsewhere in the country, as the foreign owners of the mine siphon off the profits.
We close with a Maori salutation: No reira, e te kaituhi o te Uiniana o Nga Kaimahi o te Ao, ka whawhai tonu tatou, ake ake, ake. (Loosely: Therefore, to the one who wrote on behalf of the IWW, we will carry on your struggle for as long as necessary.)
Mark Derby lives in Wellington, Aotearoa/NZ, and wrote “The Case of William E. Trautmann and the role of the Wobblies” in Revolution – the 1913 Great Strike in New Zealand, ed. Melanie Nolan, Canterbury University Press, 2006. Jay Miller is author of “Soldier of the Class War – the life and writing of William E. Trautmann,” a Ph.D. dissertation completed in 2000 at Wayne State University, where Trautmann’s unpublished memoir can also be found.
Jay Miller is author of “Soldier of the Class War – the life and writing of William E. Trautmann,” a Ph.D. dissertation completed in 2000 at Wayne State University, where Trautmann’s unpublished memoir can also be found
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2006)