A new book chronicles for the first time the history of Australia's wide comb shearing dispute, which involved many New Zealand shearers.

The early 1980s dispute became one of the most violent chapters in Australian rural history.

Writer and former journalist Mark Filmer from Orange, New South Wales, has documented the four years of industrial chaos that beset Australia's wool industry when a small group of 'rebel' shearers sought to have a long-standing ban on wide-toothed shearing combs overturned.

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Although 13-toothed shearing combs were standard in New Zealand and many other countries, they had been banned from use in Australia since an Arbitration Commission ruling in 1926.

However, many Australian shearers were exposed to wide combs in the mid to late 1970s, when they shore with New Zealand shearers in Western Australia, where the shearing industry was unregulated.

The Australian Workers' Union (AWU) strictly regulated the shearing industry in Australia's eastern states and most of those shearers who 'discovered' wide combs in the west, reverted to using standard gauge 10- toothed combs back in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. (Queensland operated under a separate state award and was largely unaffected by the dispute.)

However, there were a few shearers who were prepared to defy the union.

They were led by the late shearing contractor Robert White, from the Blayney district of New South Wales, who believed the newer versions of the wide combs were significantly more productive and efficient than narrow combs.

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

White's campaign to have wide combs approved escalated into one of the most bitter, protracted and violent industrial disputes in Australian history.

Three Steel Teeth - Wide Comb Shears and Woolshed Wars. Photo / Supplied
Three Steel Teeth - Wide Comb Shears and Woolshed Wars. Photo / Supplied

The union fought hard to prevent wide combs being approved, arguing they would cause more injuries to shearers, reduce the quality of the woolclip, cause more skin cuts to the sheep, and lead to an erosion of pay and conditions.

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White and many members of his shearing teams were attacked and bashed several times by union thugs.

Key farmer groups, the former Livestock and Grain Producers' Association and the National Farmers' Federation, became involved in the dispute because they could see benefits to woolgrowers as well as shearers.

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

Mark Filmer, author of Three Steel Teeth. Photo / Supplied
Mark Filmer, author of Three Steel Teeth. Photo / Supplied

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

Eight sheds were visited during the main case, with 15 more sheds inspected in the subsequent health and safety inquiry. The dispute was punctuated by numerous incidents of violence, as disgruntled union shearers raided sheds where 'rebel' shearing teams were working and attacked them.

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There was even an open gun battle between two groups of rival shearers in a sleepy country town in central Victoria.

In most country pubs there were regular fights sparked by bitter rivalry between wide comb and narrow comb shearers.

Many New Zealand shearers were caught up in the fighting, as the AWU blamed them for bringing the banned wide combs to Australia.

The book, 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.