In Search of the Magic Pudding

A Brief History of the Wide Comb Dispute in the Pastoral Industry Award

Paul Houlihan

'I won't rejoin the union until the organisers get out of the pubs and into the sheds.'

Robert White, 1981

'If there is a blue about wide combs it will make 1956 look like a Sunday School picnic.'

Ernie Ecob, 1982

'You can't hope to end an emotional dispute like this wide comb dispute without everyone giving ground'.

George Polites




I was first alerted to the existence of a disagreement about the use of so-called wide combs when, with my letter of appointment as Industrial Director of NFF, the then Executive Director included a cutting from that authoritative journal of record The Land referring to a meeting of shearers at Dubbo, in Central New South Wales and the resolution carried there that they would not accept any shearer working in a shed using combs wider than 2 1/2 inches.

I was, in my opinion, an experienced and incisive thinker about industrial relations and so I dismissed the Executive Director's concern about the potential of this disagreement as demonstrating clearly that he had no industrial knowledge because, naturally, a union representing piece workers would not stand in the way of a device that would increase the throughput and consequently the earnings of those piece workers. A number of explanations are necessary before we can really come to the points at issue in this paper. Firstly, the comb in shearing parlance is simply a piece of metal fixed to the end of the handpiece which the shearer holds and across which passes the cutter which actually severs the individual fibres of wool. The comb is a device which permits the entry of the handpiece into the wool and separates the wool into a series of rows which the cutter can pass across and sever.

It is basically the same implement as we see at a hairdresser.

The other important scene-setting considerations relate firstly to a sociological development and secondly to one of the most successful 'new land' developments in Australian history.

As unemployment spread through the Australian community in the mid-1970s, one of the groups worst affected were those unskilled employees who increasingly found gainful employment difficult and, in many cases, virtually impossible to procure.

A number of those people, essentially intelligent and prepared to work hard, cast around and saw in the shearing industry an opportunity for a person who was prepared to work very hard to make a very good living.

In consequence there started to come into the shearing industry, in that period, a stream of people who did not have the same union dominated background that had traditionally been the lot of earlier shearers. The second phenomenon was of a more long-term nature, with the development in the late 1950s and early 1960s of vast tracts of new land in Western Australia. In particular this included the south-east and the opening up of the Great Esperance sand plain country with the introduction of trace elements. This led to a situation, where, in a period of some 20 years, Western Australia moved from running about 10 per cent of the nation's sheep flock to something approaching 40 per cent. This dramatic increase in sheep numbers in Western Australia far outstripped the availability of either local shearers or shearers from other parts of Australia prepared to travel to Western Australia to shear this vast flock.

Consequently shearers from New Zealand commenced travelling to Western Australia to meet the labour shortfall. And they brought with them the so-called wide comb. Interestingly those combs were made in Sydney.

The difference between the standard comb as used in Australia and the wide comb was basically a matter of the number of teeth in the wide comb.

The Federal Pastoral Industry Award had prescribed, since an employer application in 1927, that the width of the comb should not be more than 2 1/2 inches measured from the outside points of the teeth. There is a separate history as to why the employers made that application which need not concern us here. Suffice to say that the original employer application has been built on by a number of union applications over the years to further reinforce that restriction; indeed the AWU registered a rule (Rule 123 of the union) which made it an offence not merely under the award, but also against the union, for any shearer who was a member of the union to use combs wider than 2 1/2 inches.

Into all of these circumstances strode a latter-day Lochinvar, appropriately enough coming from out of the west, but originally from Mandurama in the central west of New South Wales, one Robert White.

White was an extensively experienced shearer, a long-time AWU representative, but most importantly a proselytising advocate of the use of wide combs. White first saw wide combs used in the 'new land' country in Western Australia by shearers from New Zealand and other Western Australians who had experienced working with the New Zealand shearers for some time.

The combs the New Zealanders originally brought from their homeland to Australia were those essentially designed to shear the predominantly British breed sheep in New Zealand. These sheep were basically meat-producing rather than wool-producing animals and their fibre was a lot coarser and thus substantially easier to cut.

The Australian merino, on the other hand, being an out-and-out wool-producing animal, with fibre far finer than the British breeds, has wool which is generally considered harder to cut.

The shearers in Western Australia quickly set about adapting these British breed type combs to cope with the merino fibre. Through a great deal of very traditional bush experimentation, they came up with combs that were satisfactory for use in Australian merino and which brought about quite dramatic increases in the tallies by which the shearers were being paid.

That background really brings us to where I commenced my involvement at the start of 1981. By that time there had been a number of resolutions carried by mass meetings of shearers, particularly at Dubbo but also at Penshurst here in Victoria and at other shearing centres in various States of the Commonwealth. The union really was whipping itself into something approaching a frenzy about this issue. And of course when the above-mentioned Robert White set himself up in business in his home town of Mandurama as a shearing contractor and made it patently clear to all and sundry that he and his team were using wide combs, the scene was set for the sort of confrontation that followed.

Interestingly, White probably provoked the show-down by making a delightfully frank comment to a reporter about why he was refusing to take out union membership; he said that he would not rejoin the union until the organisers 'got out of the pubs and into the sheds'. That sort of comment can be guaranteed not to endear you to the bureaucrats of any trade union, let alone such staunch advocates of the freedom and opportunities of the working man as the AWU.

At this time woolgrowers started to become troubled by black bans on wool, refusals to shear with certain people and woolclassers refusing to work in certain sheds. The whole complex fabric of what happens between the growing of our wool and the export of our wool was becoming subject to various industrial tactics all of which were designed to pressure woolgrowers into opposing the use of wide combs.

In fairness, given that the award created an offence for any grazier who permitted the use of wide combs, as well as an offence for any shearer who used them, the union had some justification on their side.

Most of the industrial activity that the union was engaged in was centred in New South Wales; in consequence the Livestock and Grain Producers' Association of NSW (LGPA) (now the NSW Farmers' Association) decided that they needed to take action to try and restore some calm and sense in the industry.

They proposed that a series of trials take place to ascertain whether or not the claims being made for the wide combs were justified or whether the union's argument that these combs simply could not be used to shear the Australian merino sheep were correct.

The LGPA application went one step further and insisted that the trials would only take place if the union supported and participated in those trials. Over the next six months, despite the efforts of the LGPA, it became more and more clear from increased disruption in the industry that the AWU was not going to take part in any trials on any basis on the issue of wide combs.

At this stage, amid many accusations of breaching faith from the AWU, the LGPA withdrew its application and made a different one seeking to have the prohibition on combs wider than 64mm (2 1/2 inches) removed from the award.

That application was made in November 1981. On 1 December we sought to demonstrate to the Commission that not only British breed sheep but all the various classes of Australian merino sheep could be adequately, indeed professionally, shorn by using the wide combs. We organised a demonstration at the Sydney Showground in pursuit of the belief that the way to spread the use of wide combs was to actually allow shearers to see sheep being shorn with wide combs.

We determined that we needed to maximise publicity surrounding this trial. We arranged for four television channels and all of the major metropolitan and country media to be present.

We then remembered that we had better get the approval of the Commission for this demonstration to be held before the press. The AWU refused initially to attend any such demonstration but eventually the Commissioner prevailed on it to do so on the grounds that there would be no press present. With my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, I accepted that proposal knowing that the demonstration for the press had just been completed at the Sydney Showground while we were locked in mortal conciliation proceedings in Queen's Square.

The demonstration took place before the Commission that afternoon. The television news that evening carried graphic footage of Robert White shearing a wide variety of sheep and in the morning we received a very severe dressing down from the Commission amid what I described as the 'manufactured anguish' of the AWU. We called upon the Commission there and then to make a decision permitting the use of combs wider than 2 1/2 inches on the grounds that all that needed to be done has been done. We had shown that such combs were able to be used satisfactorily to shear any sheep in Australia and the refusal of the Commission to vary the award accordingly amounted to a restriction, even a denial, to shearers to maximise their earnings legitimately as piece workers under the terms of the Pastoral Industry Award.

We then embarked on a series of inspections in various shearing sheds, in various woolgrowing districts across the length and breadth of Australia. We took some 4,000 pages of transcript, with the union insisting that Australian merino sheep could not be shorn with wide combs and the NFF going from shed to shed throughout the land demonstrating Australian merino sheep being shorn with wide combs. Commissioner McKenzie, in charge of the hearing, decided the procedure he would follow was to arrive at a property, declare a suspension of Clause 32 of the award so that he would not be viewing a breach of the award in practice, and proceeded to take evidence from various shearers, growers and other people concerned.

One of the lighter moments in this perambulation occurred in Western Australia where evidence had already been given that there were only some 55 members of the AWU in the pastoral industry throughout the length and breadth of Western Australia and yet on one of these visits it happened that three of them were working at that particular shed.

Commissioner McKenzie suspended Clause 32 and proceeded on the inspections.

The AWU took umbrage at the fact that three of their members participated in these inspections and used wide combs; it proceeded to prosecute them under Rule 123 of the union rules.

The shearers in question, came to us for assistance to defend themselves and we prosecuted the AWU in the Federal Court and had Rule 123 struck out. Eventually the inspections finished, final addresses were made, and in March of 1982 the matter was adjourned for a decision.

In late November 1982, Commissioner McKenzie unburdened himself of his decision to the stunned surprise of the AWU. He had found the necessary courage, which it should be said was never in doubt, to make a decision based on the evidence before him that combs wider than 2 1/2 inches should be permitted.

He couched his decision in what we felt were quite sensible terms that protected those shearers who for whatever reason did not want to use wide combs but permitted combs which were in the manufacturers' specifications up to a maximum width of 92mm. This was the maximum 'throw' of the cutter on the conventional handpiece. We felt that all in all the decision was workable and achieved the sort of change that was necessary for the industry to apply itself to the future.

The AWU sought and were granted a stay order against the decision and lodged an appeal which was heard by a Full Bench of the Commission in February 1983. That decision came down in March 1983, shortly after the change of Federal Government. The Full Bench made an interesting comment saying that the attitude of the AWU was 'hedged by conservatism and tinged with hysteria' and rejected their appeal. The AWU then embarked on a national strike in the shearing industry and we were faced with the only decision that we could make, which was of course to shear as many sheep as possible while the strike was in force.

We also decided that we would wage a constant publicity war to convince as many shearers as possible that we were getting sheep shorn. We asked graziers throughout Australia to put shorn sheep in the front paddocks so that any passing shearer could see that sheep were being shorn.

We put in place a series of regional co-ordinators throughout Australia whose task was to find shearers prepared to shear and match them up with the sheep that most needed shearing.

Within a week we were able to say publicly, with a reasonable degree of truth, that all the sheep that had to be shorn were getting shorn. That statement was able to be made with increasing justification as the strike dragged on week after week.

Where previously the problems experienced during the live sheep dispute involved the Federal Coalition Government (and particularly the Prime Minister) constantly exerting pressure on our side of the dispute to be reasonable, to reach a settlement, to find a compromise, with the change of government at this critical stage of the dispute the situation interestingly changed and the problem was no longer ours but the AWU's.

Not that all the demands and pleadings and requests to be reasonable had any effect but at least that was one pressure that we did not have to contend with.

Eventually of course a formula was proposed which was in three parts:

  • that the shearers go back to work;
  • that an investigation by Commissioner McKenzie into any possible health risks to shearers as a result of the use of wide combs be undertaken; and
  • that under the aegis of the Commission, a new Technological and Change Committee be established to look at such radical things as new combs in the industry.

We were quite happy to accept those conditions given that our bottom line for the settlement of the dispute, from the time that the dispute commenced, was that the decision of the Commission had to be observed. We were quite happy to have the Committee established. That Committee met twice and the union lost interest: mind you, in fairness to them, we never had a great deal of interest ourselves.

What became known as the son of wide combs, the inquiry into the health dangers of wide combs eventually was completed. Interestingly, at our insistence, the Commonwealth, who was the promoter of this nonsense agreed to pay our costs, including the transport and accommodation. This was the only time I enjoyed first-class travel in the employment of the NFF. The matter was eventually bedded down. People from many walks of life constantly asked me and others involved in the dispute what the dispute was really all about. I have to say at the end of three years and 4,000 pages of transcript, I don't know.

I believe the key element in the dispute was the sheer will-power of the NSW Secretary of the AWU, Ernie Ecob, who as I understand it almost single-handedly held one of the largest unions in Australia in a national strike for ten weeks.

An argument constantly put forward by the union was that we would use the introduction of wide combs as a means of breaking down the formula by which the rate per hundred for shearers is established. That claim was insupportable: honest and trustworthy men like Ian McLachlan and myself assured the union and the Commission that no such thing would happen.

But more important than the dispute's reasons---whatever they might be---were the results. Clearly the most important consequence of the wide comb dispute was the prominence it gave to the then Chairman of the Wool Council of Australia and of Industrial Committee of NFF, Mr Ian McLachlan.

Mr McLachlan may possibly not have become President of the NFF without that dispute and in consequence Australian farmers would not have had the leadership that they have enjoyed in recent years. That leadership has been reflected also in most of the State organisations where the people who played active roles in that dispute have gone on to form the core leadership of most of our family of organisations.

A particularly important result of this dispute has been the fact that in the six years since the wide comb dispute the shearing industry in Australia has virtually not lost one day to industrial disputation. This record in a previously very volatile industry says something about the significance of believing in what you are doing and sticking to it.

The major result of this dispute for the AWU, according to its Federal Secretary at that time, Frank Mitchell, was that it lost 60 per cent of its pastoral membership within twelve months of the dispute (and in our experience has lost a great many more members since then). Pastoral workers who went into the dispute believing what the union was telling them came out of it determined not to listen to the union again. We carried away from this dispute a deep disbelief in that standard argument one hears in the Industrial Relations Club: 'there are no winners in industrial disputes'. As far as we were concerned, we were the winners and the AWU were the losers.

Of course the other important effect was that our membership was led to grasp very clearly and forcefully, in the context of a dispute that caused a great deal of violence and a great deal of anxiety throughout rural Australia, that we can stand our ground against a union that is seeking to impose its will on our community. That knowledge both restored a great deal of needed confidence and, if you like, 'cocked the gun' for when another union chose to inflict its own brand of lawlessness on a small meatworks in the Northern Territory.

Why HR Nicholls?

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