An Orange-based writer and former journalist has released a new book chronicling the history of one of the most violent chapters in Australian rural history.
Mark Filmer's Three Steel Teeth: Wide Comb Shears and Woolshed Wars documents the chaos that beset the wool industry in the early 1980s when a group of 'rebel' shearers sought to have a long-standing ban on wide-toothed combs overturned.
The 13-toothed combs, which were about 2 cm wider than the standard-gauge 10-toothed shearing combs, had been outlawed in Australia since an Arbitration Commission ruling in 1926.
The rebels, led by the late Blayney district shearing contractor Robert White, believed the newer versions of the wide combs were more productive and efficient than the 10-toothed combs.
Their claim was supported by preliminary tests carried out in Western Australia during the late 1970s, which found wide combs to be 14 per cent more efficient.
However, the Australian Workers' Union [AWU], who tightly regulated the shearing industry in Australia's eastern states, was strongly opposed to wide combs and fought to prevent them being approved.
Mr White and various members of his shearing teams were attacked and bashed several times by union thugs.
The rebels received the support of farming groups such the former Livestock and Grain Producers' Association and the National Farmers' Federation because they could see benefits to wool growers as well as shearers.
The dispute was settled by the Arbitration Commission in December 1982, where Commissioner Ian McKenzie approved the use of wide combs.
In response, the AWU called a national shearers' strike from March to May 1983 after losing an appeal against the commission's decision.
The Hawke Labor government, elected a fortnight before the strike was called, helped broker an end to the stoppage by supporting a fresh inquiry into the potential health and safety risks of wide combs, which cleared the tools of posing any serious danger.
A series of shearing shed inspections were carried out as part of the industrial proceedings, where legal teams for the main parties observed operations taking place before gaining evidence from the shearers and shed-hands.
The dispute was punctuated by numerous incidents of violence, as disgruntled union shearers raided sheds and attacked 'rebel' shearing teams.
There were many fights in country pubs sparked by bitter rivalry between wide comb and narrow comb shearers, as well as an open gun battle between two rival shearing groups in a quiet central Victorian town.
The book can be ordered through any bookshop or the publisher's website: www.ginninderrapress.com.au/.