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The wide comb woolshed wars

Friday, 13th September, 2019

Three Steel Teeth: Wide Comb Shears and Woolshed Wars by Mark Filmer. Three Steel Teeth: Wide Comb Shears and Woolshed Wars by Mark Filmer.

By Emily McInerney

In April 1983, a group of Broken Hill men travelled to Mutooroo Station to attack shearers for not taking part in a strike about wide shearing combs. 

The South Australian sheep station had to stop shearing as four men were bashed and suffered serious injuries.

It was reported in the BDT on April 16, 1983, that police investigated the assault at the station, which is 100 kilometres from Broken Hill.

The assault came while the station was shearing sheep despite a national shearer’s strike over the use of wide combs.

This incident is just one that features in a new book chronicling the history of Australia’s wide comb dispute.

The dispute became one of the most violent chapters in Australian rural history which caused unrest between unions and created rebel shearers.

Orange-based writer and former journalist Mark Filmer has documented the four years of industrial chaos that beset the wool industry when a small group of ‘rebel’ shearers sought to have a longstanding ban on wide-toothed shearing combs overturned.

The book ‘Three Steel Teeth: Wide Comb Shears and Woolshed Wars’ follows the story of the 13-toothed combs, which were about two centimetres wider than the standard-gauge 10-toothed shearing combs.

The combs had been outlawed from use in Australia since an Arbitration Commission ruling in 1926.

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.

“The dispute affected all East states,” Mr Filmer said during the week.

“Queensland had a separate state award and WA had a workers’ union which heavily controlled shearer’s movements.

“Over this side of Australia, the Australian Workers’ Union heavily regulated the industry.”

Mr Filmer said during the early 80’s there were many incidents in the Broken Hill area.

“Broken Hill is a strong union town.

“In April, 1983, there was an infamous incident where union shearer’s from Broken Hill raided a shed of rebel workers.

“The rebel shearers were badly injured and had to be hospitalised in Broken Hill.”

In the 1983 BDT article, it was reported that the shed at Mutooroo declared a “cut out”.

Director of the Mutooroo Pastoral Company James Morgan said that seven shearers were in their quarters when three cars carrying about 15 men arrived at the station.

“They had been seen approaching the area, he believed from Broken Hill, and the station manager’s wife had radioed to them to leave the shed,” the BDT reported.

“The manager, John Manning, drove to the shed.

“When he got out of the car and asked them what they were doing they assaulted him and hit him on the head with a broom ... and kicked him.

“The men had then gone to the quarters and given the overseer of the shearing team ‘quite a severe beating’ and two other shearers were injured.”

In the article Mr Morgan had denied the station had been defying the strike.

He said the surviving sheep had been weak after two years of severe drought, and as they had been mustered great distances there was no alternative but to go ahead with the shearing.

There had been nine shearers but two left after a visit from the AWU. The shed had not been using wide combs.

“It’s funny, you think the unions would have welcomed the wide combs because it would have created more productivity,” Mr Filmer said.

“It allowed the shearers to earn more with no trade off of quality.”

Mr Filmer said the unions believes that the combs needed a greater force to push through the fleece which would create more injuries to sheep and shearers.

“It was also believed to damage the fleece.

“The unions thought that it was a trick that would be used to reduce pay rates in the industry.”

The dispute had been settled in the Arbitration Commission, where Commissioner Ian McKenzie presided over the main case and approved the use of wide combs in December 1982. 

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

The strike ran for about eight weeks.

The Hawke Labor government, which was elected a fortnight before the start of the strike, helped broker an end to the stoppage by supporting a fresh inquiry into potential health and safety risks of wide combs. 

Mr Filmer said he became interested in the issue when discussing it with a solicitor in Orange.

“It became a hobby of mine, and I spent a lot of my spare time on it.

“I thought if I was to make a go of it and write a book I would need to quit my job.

“I spent about 18 months on the book.

“It was published last week.”

Mr Filmer said he would love to tour the book, but he is back working full-time.

“If anyone is interested in purchasing the book, they can go to a book store or jump online and order it through my publisher.

“The eBook comes out today.”

Three Steel Teeth: Wide Comb Shears and Woolshed Wars, is published by Ginninderra Press and can be ordered through any bookshop or from the publisher’s website.

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