The Story

A ferocious ‘war’ erupted in remote outback Australia in 1983. Shearers were on strike. ‘Scab’ shearers had to be protected against invading mobs of unionists. In scattered and isolated woolsheds sheds the question was: should sheep-shearers be allowed to use ‘wide combs’? Australian merinos had always been shorn with ‘narrow combs’. Until a recent ruling industrial award expressly forbad wide combs. Initiated by the graziers (way back in 1926) the rule had become shearers’ folklore. Wide combs were not just wrong – but positively evil. This was the 1980s, but the roots of the problem went back to the 1890s.

Shearers got paid per hundred sheep, not by the hour or the day, so the opportunity to get a bigger tally with the wide comb was something to be welcomed – one would think. Indeed, that was certainly the case. But fanatical opposing opinion could not easily be overcome. It was ‘un-Australian’ to even think about it. But equally, it was ‘un-Australian’ NOT to be allowed a free choice to use whatever equipment did the job best. Diametrically opposed points of view were quite irreconcilable.

The oldest and most powerful trade union in the nation’s history stood behind the strike. The Australian Workers Union, known wide and far by its acronym ‘the AWU’, had risen in the 1890s. Ruthlessly efficient at grass roots organiser, God help any shearer trying to occupy a stand without an AWU ticket. And God help any greedy upstart questioning AWU wisdom on industrial matters.

The shearing workforce had always been a rambunctious, contrary lot. The work was punishingly strenuous as well as highly skilled. Infectious group camaraderie governed its cult of ‘mateship’. This was also prone to impenetrable ‘insider-outsider’ idiosyncrasies. There was money to be made for those who could stand the pace, but strong tribal loyalties to the union dictated customs and rules in the woolshed.

Many different types gravitated into shearing. At one end were staunch unionists preaching ‘mateship’ and class solidarity. At the other end self-improving moneymakers accumulated funds get started as farmers. For the most part the two groups ‘got on’, or at least tolerated one another. Hard core class warriors enjoyed the competitive camaraderie and were not themselves against making money. Moneymakers were not averse to a bit of class solidarity if it bolstered shearing rates of pay. They were less tolerant of rules which slowed them down.

In its foundation years the AWU had been pugnacious and militant. Violent strikes in the 1890s did not go well for it. Too many members were farmers who ‘scabbed’ during strikes. The arrival of contract shearing further diluted the link between ‘mateship’ and union solidarity. In 1902 moneymaking professional shearers were so exasperated by AWU belligerence towards woolgrowers, they formed a rival ‘Machine Shearers Union’, more friendly to the graziers. AWU leaders had to use all their guile and cunning to outwit the upstart MSU. The AWU moderated its militancy, adopted a policy of opposing strikes, and put its faith in the newly established Arbitration Court to fix wages and settle disputes.

Unfortunately for the AWU, factions within its rank-and-file remained attracted to the mythology of class war against the graziers. During World War I, the Arbitration Court was very laggard in updating the shearing award and militants had their chance. In defiance of the AWU a very successful strike was organised in Queensland. This opened the door for a militant faction with communist connections in the interwar period. The AWU’s firm policy of ‘arbitration not direct action’ was ridiculed. The AWU denigrated them as ‘bogus disrupters’ and excoriated their point of view, but at the same time adopted militant-sounding rhetoric. The union could not afford to be accused of being on the side of the bosses.

The graziers saw the danger and responded. Isolated shearing sheds were vulnerable to last minute walkouts when shearers stuck together. The Graziers’ Cooperative Shearing Company (later known as Grazcos) in 1919 was founded. Grazcos operated on a big enough scale all over NSW (and later Victoria and Queensland) to recruit strike-breakers when there was ‘trouble’ at particular sheds. It grew rapidly.

The militant element disrupted woolsheds in the early-1920s with some ongoing success. The AWU tended to ‘sit on the fence’, but a decisive win by the graziers in 1922 ended its flirtation with the ‘bogus disrupters’. Grazcos co-ordinated strike-breakers and the Graziers Association successfully prosecuted AWU leaders for advocating strikes.

‘Bogus disrupters’ did not disappear, and indeed caused the AWU further headaches during the Great Depression by forming a competing union, the Pastoral Workers Industrial Union, known as ‘the PWIU’. It’s leading lights were Arthur Rae, an AWU pioneer who had fallen out with mainstream Labor, and ‘Trucker’ Brown, a disgruntled shearer from a downtrodden background in Cobar. The PWIU caused no end of trouble in this period, although the size and superior organisation of the AWU eventually gained ascendancy. Nevertheless, a serious shortage of shearers during World War II was the catalyst for more shearing shed disturbances and another debilitating (if ultimately unsuccessful) strike in 1945.

When the wool price boomed in the 1950s PWIU ‘troublemakers’ re-infiltrated the AWU. They called themselves the ‘Dubbo Progress Committee’. While the wool price was still rising the AWU had little difficulty persuading the Arbitration Court to continue escalating shearing rates, but as the wool price receded from their extraordinary peak in 1951 the graziers began to resist. Still concerned about the radical threat within, the AWU abandoned the mantra of always accepting decisions of the Arbitration Court. This was the genesis of the 1956 strike, a drawn out ‘war of attrition’ between the United Graziers Association of Queensland, primarily, and the AWU.

The 1956 strike passed into AWU mythology as an ‘historic victory’ over the graziers. In fact any ‘victory’ was a more pyrrhic than real. Certainly the grazier associations thought twice about again asking the Arbitration Court to cut shearing rates, but it also reinforced disruptive attitudes in shearing sheds. These were deeply resented by graziers and when they got their chance they put the boot in. The opportunity arrived with the wide comb dispute.

While ‘union attitudes’ prevailed in the sheds in the years after 1956, society was changing, not least amongst the shearing workforce. Many were involved in shearing competitions and shearing schools. The ‘tally-hi’ shearing technique developed and promoted by the Australian Wool Board encouraged the moneymaking culture at the expense of the old union solidarity. The old grazing stations had largely disappeared and most wool growing took place on mixed sheep and wheat-cropping family farms run on new agri-business principles.

Wide combs arrived in Australia courtesy of increasing numbers of New Zealand shearers. Wide combs were not new – they had been around since 1910 (or possibly earlier). In New Zealand they had been universally used for as long as anybody could remember – indeed there had never been the slightest sign of any objection. The most obvious reason for this was that New Zealand farms bred sheep with coarse wool in contrast to the predominant merinos with fine-wool fleeces. Romney and cross-bred wool did not clog up the teeth of the wider combs, as tended to happen when they entered a merino fleece.

However, there was a more fundamental problem. Australians were very much concerned with ‘fairness’ among the shearers, and also with the way the labour arbitration court calculated shearers’ wages. This risk was, the AWU said, that if wide combs became common, the Arbitration Commission would have an exaggerated view of how much money shearers were making. Commissioners would be more reluctant to award increases in pay. Some even believed that it was a sinister plot by graziers to get shearing rates reduced!

For the most of the twentieth century the AWU straddled different points of view amongst its unruly rank-and-file with masterly efficiency. Prone to authoritarianism, this was not always an attractive spectacle. Enemies were silenced and dissidents denied elected positions in the union. However, in the 1980s these methods no longer worked. The wide comb restriction no longer made any sense to those involved in the industry, and to outsiders it was simply bizarre. The union suffered an embarrassing defeat. However, as was characteristic of the AWU throughout its history, it lived to fight another day.