The “wide comb dispute” was the culmination of festering bitterness in the shearing industry. It came to a violent climax between 1980 and 1985. It was a puzzling and largely unexplained episode in Australian rural history. Mateship and Moneymaking explores this history in considerable depth. There were various dimensions to the animosity generated, some reasonably obvious, others bordering on the “anthropological”. Shearing culture was progressive and forward looking, but also rooted in old traditions and customs.
At the heart of it was a clash of diametrically opposite points of view. Hard core Australian Workers Union (AWU) loyalists regarded wide combs as a betrayal of mateship and union solidarity which only the worst of scabs were capable of. On the other hand upwardly mobile moneymakers, whose matey camaraderie and raw shearing shed humour could not hide their scorn for union attitudes. They indignantly asserted their “right” to use any kind of comb they wanted. They wanted to get on and not wallow in the past. Shear like hell, make a pile, buy a business or a farm and not still working their guts out shearing when they were 60. If wide combs were illegal – it was a stupid rule anyway. Wider combs facilitated daily earnings up to 20% higher. Why wouldn’t a shearer use one? Because the AWU said they were bad for the industry, would erode solidarity, and expose them to grazier bastardry? Pull the other one! Gun shearers knew their stuff and got on fine with the farmers. Put the question the other way around – why would any shearer NOT want to take the opportunity?
The most intelligible reason for the ban was the calculation made by the arbitration court when fixing shearing wages. The court considered a “fair” rate per hundred sheep for the average shearer. The formula was basically: “a fair weekly wage for an ordinary shearer taking into account seasonality and skill” ÷ “the average weekly tally of sheep”. The union worried that if wide combs came into common use, increasing the average tally, it would hold back wages set by the court. Gun shearers didn’t care that much because their tallies were way above average and they could make good money in any case. Below average shearers feared their weekly earnings could might fall. The court considered many things when fixing the shearing rate, and this was drawing a rather long bow. But this is what the unionists thought.
Another perceived problem with wide combs was that they made the work harder, and the quality of shearing would suffer (more ridges and second cuts). The claim was made by some very capable shearers, although usually they lacked much experience of wide combs. This was hotly disputed by enthusiasts. It was a matter a shearing technique, they said, and also of designing combs for fine wool merino sheep. Hitherto the combs available for New Zealand conditions (where there had never been a ban) were designed for coarse wool breeds.
The controversy over the ease of shearing and quality is largely put to rest by this demonstration which was carried out in the ABC TV studio for the Nationwide program in April 1983. Even allowing for the artificial nature of the experiment, this just about settles it.
Shearers divided into warring camps. There was no middle ground. The intensity of feeling is amply illustrated by this Channel Nine extract filmed when fist fights broke out when union officials barred wide comb shearers from attending a union meeting at the Wagga Wagga Leagues Club.