A new book by Orange-based Charles Sturt University researcher Mark Filmer about the 1980s shearers' wide comb dispute offers a classic case study about attitudes towards technological change.
Three Steel Teeth: Wide Comb Shears and Woolshed Wars fills a significant gap in the literature relating to Australia's recent rural and industrial history.
The book provides a meticulously researched account of how Australia's wool-growing industry descended into chaos during the early 1980s when a small group of "rebel" shearers started advocating for a seemingly minor change.
"Shearers are widely regarded as being the hardest workers in the entire workforce, and wide combs were roughly 14 per cent more productive than narrow combs," Mr Filmer said.
"There should never have been an industrial dispute over wide comb shears, and the Australian Workers Union should have been open to adopting any new technology that could benefit its shearer members."
There have been many books about Australia's iconic shearing industry, but those that focus on the history do not provide much detail about the wide comb dispute.
"In researching the book, I travelled all over eastern Australia, interviewed 40 people, and spent many weeks searching through several libraries and archives in Canberra," Mr Filmer said.
Three Steel Teeth examines the four years of industrial turmoil, bitterness, intimidation and violence that ensued when the rebel shearers, led by Robert White, argued and agitated for 13-tooth shearing combs to be legalised.
"Wide combs, as they were known, had been banned from use in Australia for more than 50 years, but White and his supporters argued they were more efficient and productive than the standard gauge 10-tooth shearing combs and wanted the ban overturned," Mr Filmer said. "This is the first detailed account of an industrial dispute that revolutionised Australia's iconic shearing industry and led to the total demise of the AWU in the industry after it stubbornly refused to embrace technological change.
"When wide combs were eventually approved ... shearers found they were far superior to narrow combs and they abandoned the union in droves."
Mr Filmer argues that by opposing a superior technology that enabled shearers to significantly increase their pay, the AWU had effectively made itself irrelevant to shearers. "It's a salutary reminder that trade unions exist solely to represent the interests of their members and advocate on their behalf.
"The key lesson is the need for all industries to be open to emerging technologies and the potential for innovative new developments to benefit their workers."