The violent dispute that pitted shearer against shearer

How the battle to introduce wide combs in the shearing industry was won


Sheepmeat
WIDE COMB WARRIOR: Blayney shearer and contractor, Robert White, led the battle to introduce wide combs into the Australian shearing industry.

WIDE COMB WARRIOR: Blayney shearer and contractor, Robert White, led the battle to introduce wide combs into the Australian shearing industry.

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A new book chronicles the wide comb dispute which sparked violence in the shearing industry during the early 1980s.

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The push to introduce wide combs into the shearing industry in the early 1980s sparked one of the most violent chapters in Australian rural history.

And now Orange-based author and journalist, Mark Filmer, has written a book about the bitter four-year dispute which saw gun battles between supporters and opponents of wide combs.

Wide combs, typically 86 millimetres with 13-teeth, had been banned in Australia by an Arbitration Commission ruling in 1926.

Shearers, backed by the Australian Workers Union (AWU), stuck with the narrow 64mm combs for the next 50 years or so, but a growing influx of New Zealand shearers working in Western Australia in the 1960s brought wide combs with them.

Mr Filmer's book chronicles the industrial chaos in the wool industry when a small group of "rebel" shearers sought to have the ban on wide combs overturned.

The rebels, led by the late Blayney district shearing contractor Robert White believed the newer versions of the wide combs were more productive and efficient than the standard 10-toothed combs.

THREE TEETH: Wide shearing combs had three more teeth than the traditional narrow comb.

THREE TEETH: Wide shearing combs had three more teeth than the traditional narrow comb.

Mr White, who died in 1986, was bashed several times by union thugs.

Preliminary tests carried out in WA during the late 1970s had shown the wide-toothed combs to be 14 per cent more productive than narrow combs.

However, the Australian Workers Union, which tightly regulated the shearing industry in the eastern states, was stridently opposed to wide combs and fought to prevent them being approved.

Key farmer groups, the former NSW Livestock and Grain Producers Association and the National Farmers Federation, became involved because they could see benefits to woolgrowers as well as shearers who get paid for the number of sheep they shear.

The dispute was settled in the Arbitration Commission where Commissioner Ian McKenzie approved the use of wide combs in December 1982.

The AWU called a national shearers' strike from March to May 1983 after it lost its appeal against the commission's decision.

THE AUTHOR: Former country journalist, Mark Filmer, Orange, has written a book about the wide comb dispute during the early 1980s.

THE AUTHOR: Former country journalist, Mark Filmer, Orange, has written a book about the wide comb dispute during the early 1980s.

The Federal Government stepped in to help broker an end to the strike by supporting a fresh inquiry to potential health and safety risks of wide combs. (That inquiry found there were no risks.)

The industrial proceedings associated with the wide comb dispute featured a series of shearing shed inspections, where the legal teams for the main parties witnessed shearing operations taking place then took evidence from the shearers and shed-hands.

The dispute triggered many ugly clashes as disgruntled union shearers raided sheds where rebel shearing teams were working and attacked them.

There were also many fights in country pubs caused by bitter rivalry between wide comb and narrow comb shearers.

Three Steel Teeth: Wide Comb Shear and Woolshed Wars has been written by former country journalist Mark Filmer from Orange.

It is published by Ginninderra Press and can be ordered through any good bookshop or directly from the publisher's website.

The story The violent dispute that pitted shearer against shearer first appeared on Farm Online.

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