Labour History

The Eclipse of Mateship: The ‘Wide Comb Dispute’ 1979-85

Labour History (2006), 90, (1), 155–176.

Abstract

In the early 1980s the Australian shearing industry was torn apart by the ‘wide comb dispute’. This occupied the Arbitration Commission for over four years, while intimidation of ‘scabs’ and woolshed arson ensured it caught the urban public’s imagination. The rich mythology of the 1890s and the mystery of why shearing equipment aroused such passions seemed related. An intriguing dimension was that the offending combs had been introduced by New Zealanders. The deeper cultural issue was the New Zealanders’ weak unionism. The core dispute, however, was between the newly formed National Farmers Federation, energised by new ideas of how Australian society should be organised, and the Australian Workers Union (AWU). The traditional clash between woolgrowers and the AWU over shearing rates and conditions was camouflage for a much more profound ideological shift in society. ‘New Right’ ideas challenged the ‘Federation settlement’ and the concepts of ‘labourism’ which was the core of the AWU’s raison d’être.

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Author details

O’Malley, Rory

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