New book by Orange author documents bitter wide comb shearing dispute
It was one of the most violent chapters in Australian rural history: The fight to overturn the longstanding ban on wide-toothed shearing combs in the early 1980s saw shearing sheds and pubs become battlegrounds and for four years the wool industry was thrown into chaos.
Now, for the first time, the history of the Australia’s wide comb shearing dispute is documented in a new book released this month.
In Three Steel Teeth: Wide Comb Shears and Woolshed Wars, Orange-based writer and former journalist Mark Filmer has documented the industrial chaos that beset the wool industry when a small group of ‘rebel’ shearers sought to overturn the ban on wide-toothed shearing combs.
The 13-toothed combs, which were about 2 cm wider than the standard-gauge 10-toothed shearing combs, had been outlawed from use in Australia since 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.
However, the Australian Workers’ Union, which tightly regulated the shearing industry in Australia’s eastern states, was strongly opposed to wide combs and fought to prevent them being approved.
Mr White and many members of his shearing teams were attacked and bashed several times by union thugs and a national shearers’ strike from March to May 1983 paralysed the wool industry.
The dispute was punctuated by numerous incidents of violence, as disgruntled union shearers raided sheds where ‘rebel’ shearing teams were working and attacked them. There were many fights in country pubs sparked by bitter rivalry between wide comb and narrow comb shearers. There was even an open gun battle between two groups of rival shearers in a sleepy country town in central Victoria.
The book, Three Steel Teeth: Wide Comb Shears and Woolshed Wars, is published by Ginninderra Press and can be purchased through Collins Booksellers in Orange.