In Search of the Magic Pudding
A Brief History of the Wide Comb Dispute in the Pastoral Industry Award
'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'.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.