Tranmæl spent his formative years in Melhus just outside Trondheim. He came from a medium-sized farm, and had three older brothers and two younger sisters. After his mother died around 1890, things took a turn for the worse for the family. His father gave up the farm in 1893, and life in the small town became more difficult. Martin's schooling was incomplete, but he was a frequent visitor to the public library. He soon turned his sights on Trondheim, and in the Adressebog [address book] for Trondhjem [as it was spelled then] 1897 he is registered at an address on Innherredsveien, as a house painter. For several years he had one foot in the city and one in the district, and common to both was his strong commitment to labour organisations. The teetotalism cause was also dear to his heart all his life. His main arena, however, would be trade unionism and party politics. Martin Tranmæl heard and was inspired by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson's [Norwegian Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1903] patriotic speech at Ilevollen in 1897. It was as an agitator, firebrand and organiser that he would exert strong influence in the next decades.
In 1899 the radical newspaper Ny Tid [New Time] appeared. Martin Tranmæl was one of the founders and contributors. In the ensuing years he spent much time in the USA, where a number of his siblings had settled. Here he studied American labour union movements close up, and was influenced by those who were impatient and wanted to take action by going on strike and instigating go-slow actions.
In 1903 Tranmæl became the chairman of the Sør-Trøndelag Labour Party county association, and over time came to have a leadership position among those who wanted to radicalise the party and its policies. He would ride across the Trøndelag region on his bicycle. For a period of 15 years he was extremely active giving speeches and lectures, holding meetings, and establishing trade unions and local party chapters. His devotion and stamina were his strength, and Norwegian history does not find many equal to him.
The Labour Party had a strong position in Trondheim, already having become the second largest party. In 1913 Tranmæl became the editor of Ny Tid, which had become the leading newspaper for radical Norwegian socialists. After the 1916 election the city was led by Labour, and Tranmæl became the deputy mayor. In the party and the trade union movement people from the Trøndelag region became the locomotive in the faction of the Labour Party often called Fagopposisjonen [the trade union opposition]. For several years there were confrontations between the reformists and the more radical action-oriented socialists. Tranmæl was sentenced to several terms in prison during this period of time, mostly for defamation and anti-military agitation. World War 1 contributed to making the fronts more rigid, and during the national Labour Party congress in 1918 the entire leadership was sacked in favour of new forces. Martin Tranmæl was elected the party secretary, thus ending the epoch of his sojourn in Trondheim. Until approximately the 1960s he shared his strong opinions and set his mark on the design of the Norwegian society. But he never forgot his Melhus and Trondheim roots and what he had learnt in the school of life.
Recommended reading: Aksel Zachariassen: Martin Tranmæl. Tiden 1979.