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The wide comb shearing dispute

The wide comb shearing dispute

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Recently I completed a manuscript documenting the history of the wide comb shearing dispute, which split Australia’s pastoral industry during the early 1980s. The dispute lasted about four years and was one of Australia’s most bitter, violent and protracted industrial disputes.

The issue in dispute was the width of the combs shearers used to shear sheep. Since the 1920s, there had been a width restriction of 64 mm, but a small group of shearers started using wider combs (typically 86 mm with three extra teeth) because they found them easier to use and more productive. This was significant because shearers were paid on the basis of how many sheep they shore, not how many hours they worked. It was also significant that wide combs were introduced into Australia by New Zealand shearers.

The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), which regulated the shearing industry, was vehemently opposed to wide combs and tried to stamp them out. The campaign to introduce wide combs was led by Robert White (1944-1986), a shearing contractor from Blayney, NSW. White’s advocacy for wide combs cost him dearly—he and his shearing teams were attacked and bashed several times by union thugs. Occasionally White had to sleep in police lock-ups for his own safety.

Several farmers’ groups became involved in the dispute because they could see benefits for woolgrowers as well as shearers. Following several years of industrial proceedings, the Arbitration Commission legalised wide combs. The decision outraged the AWU—it immediately called a national strike, which lasted eight weeks (March-May 1983). Rebel wide comb shearers defied the union and continued to shear. The union responded by raiding several woolsheds and attacking ‘scab’ shearing teams; this was a particularly violent period.

The strike ended when union shearers realised the national flock was being shorn without them. By staying on strike they would lose valuable contracts. When they returned to work, many union shearers started using wide combs and quickly realised they were far superior to the standard (narrow) gauge combs they had favoured.

The wide comb dispute led to the complete demise of the AWU (in the pastoral industry) as disgruntled shearers abandoned the union. It also helped to make Australia's wool industry more internationally competitive and paved the way for many future industrial relations reforms.

  • Three Steel Teeth: Wide Comb Shears and Woolshed Wars is the first detailed account of this intriguing dispute. The manuscript has been submitted to several publishers.
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