Unbroken Commitment: The 1956 Shearers’ Strike

Neil Byron

Neil ‘Australia’ Byron, who died in Maryborough late last year aged 85, was one of the truly indomitable figures of the twentieth century labour movement – a shearer, agitator, orator, storyteller and a larrikin. One of ten kids born on a small Mudgee farm somewhere around 1914. He grew up surrounded by Labor leaders. Herb Evatt was a frequent visitor to the family home.

Neil spent most of his early working life between country and city, sometimes ring barking or panning for gold, but often ‘jumping the rattler’ to Queensland in search of work. In 1937 Neil landed a job in Balmain as a trade assistant making gunboats. It was there he came in contact with militants who shaped his views on the causes of the depression. He became a committed unionist and socialist. But most of Neil’s life was to be spent in the bush. He met some shearers in a country pub and travelled with them to a sheep station pretending he could shear. The cocky soon discovered the pretence and sacked him. But the shearers liked him, struck, and demanded he be taught . That was the start of many years organising the shearers.

Neil went on to become an organiser for the Miscellaneous Workers Union and later the union’s Branch secretary in the Northern Territory where he took unionism into both pastoral areas and amongst the Aboriginal communities. For many workers, Neil Byron was the union in the bush. Neil coordinated much of the ‘manpower’ needs after cyclone Tracey and he acquired his own piece of land down the track with the blessing of the local Aboriginal Elders.

In retirement, Neil wrote a remarkable series of reminiscences on major episodes in his life of militancy. As a tribute to his life’s work, The Hummer publishes below an edited version of Neil’s account of the great shearers’ strike of 1956 – one of the momentous conflicts of twentieth century Australian labour history. The extracts are drawn from Neil’s
All Among the Wool Boys!, edited by Branch member Audrey Johnson and first published in 1996.

During my twenty seven years as a shearer I, along with many others in the pastoral industry, tried to change the direction of the right-wing AWU to make it more democratic so that members could have a say in running the union. In 1953 the members made me Secretary of the Bourke local Shearers’ Committee. These local committees were organised in 1945 and every town had a committee, mostly led by mili¬tants; the people who ran the AWU wanted to get rid of them because they had too much power.

In March 1956, when the Court cut the shearers’ rate thirty shillings a hundred, there was an immediate reaction from the Bourke shearers, and they put me on to be full-time secre¬tary to run the dispute. The strike ran for twenty six weeks and I was paid by the shearers, not the AWU. The union was half-hearted about it, they kept away; there was only one visit by an AWU organiser during the whole of the strike. But the reaction of the shearers to the slash in wages in both Federal and Queensland state awards, was to call a conference of local committees from all towns in New South Wales. Queensland did the same and it was decided to withdraw labour from all sheds that imposed the cuts. It was also decided that where cockies were prepared to pay old rates, shearing teams would be made available. These tactics proved successful in a great number of centres, including Bourke, where most shearing was done between February and July.

I was asked by a meeting of 300 to take on the job of organising the shearers, policing and organising the sheds, meeting cockies and negotiating, keeping contact with all centres throughout the country, checking on strangers in town, contacting other unions for support, checking all wool leaving Bourke, and clearing the bale brands to unions in Sydney. I also organised shearers’ conferences and attended meetings in Queensland and other centres. For this I was paid the average shearer’s earning in the sheds – £25 per week.

We had three treasurers collecting the levies required of the shearers, issuing receipts and keeping the records for every shed. There were a great number of shearers coming into our district; Bourke was the biggest shearing centre in the world— and still is — because it’s the centre of such a large area. This also made it dangerous to bring scabs into the town with so many shearers about. Anyway, the woolgrowers agreed to our terms immediately because the wool was fully grown at that time and they could hardly do otherwise, but other centres were not so lucky and had a hard time.

During the dispute, we had only two sheds break, and they were owned by big over¬seas companies. Because of the floods in the back country at the time, they were extremely hard to get to, and they slipped their scabs through in small numbers. One place, Nockaleachy, was only accessible by car and boat; another, only twenty seven miles up river from Bourke, required a sixty five mile detour for us to reach the shed.

In the Bourke area we quickly became organised and, with the cockies agreeing to pay the old rates, the shearers were soon all working. I established a network of phone numbers throughout the town so I could be contacted at any time. My main activity was approaching strangers in town to find out what they were doing, and looking at their hands for tell-tale knuckles. Shearers always grew big knuckles pressing their hands into the skin of sheep to make it taut for easier shear¬ing. Some of the blokes resented my approach, but in the main they were all right.

One chap who was hanging around for a few days said he was a carpenter, but I became suspicious when the weekend came and he was still there. I got a young shedhand to have a few drinks with him and tell him he was waiting for a shed to start with Grazcos. It worked, and on Saturday night the shed-hand rushed into my place and told me the scab was to go out next week with Grazcos to Nockaleachy. The boys told me to go to the pictures and make sure I was seen, and they would deal with him, which they did. They picked him up bodily from the Royal Hotel and after he got out of hospital we never saw him again. The police were soon onto me but I knew nothing and had an alibi.

The next week I got a phone call from Byrock that three blokes had got off the train and a car had picked them up and was headed for Bourke. By the time I’d got a car and a couple of mates and out to the meatworks where the flood waters had narrowed the road to one lane – where we were going to block the road – we’d lost the race by half a minute. We chased the car but it was too fast for us, so we went back to Bourke to see if there was a stranger staying there. Sure enough, in about half an hour the car pulled up outside the Royal and the Nockaleachy manager raced inside and rang the police. In two minutes flat the place was swarming with cops who escorted this bloke and the manager to the car. We could do little other than abuse them. But we never saw any more shearers go out, and all I know is that it took them months to do their shearing, and the wool never came through Bourke until after the dispute. We caught quite a few chaps who came out to shear and who said they didn’t know about the dispute. We paid their fares back home.

One Sunday a local chap told me he came up on the train from Sydney on Saturday and six blokes got off the train at Byrock. I got some volunteers and we set off on Monday to find them. As it had been raining the week before it was easy to see any activity at the gates of the stations to show they’d started shearing. We saw nothing between Bourke and Byrock, so at Byrock we boiled the billy. Just then the Sydney train came in so I went up to see if anyone go off. When I got to the station there were five young lads in their school blaz¬ers, and I couldn’t see anyone else. I went up to the kids and just as I asked them if they’d seen any men get off the train the Grazcos rep from Bourke jumped out from a shed on the platform and yelled at me to leave the kids alone. He quickly rushed them away to the utility on the other side of the shed, and away they went full speed up the Brewarrina road.

I rushed back to the boys and we gave chase but he lost us; so we had the task of inspecting all the property entrances all the way to Brewarrina. We found the place ten miles out of the town, so we rushed in to Brewarrina for reinforcements from the locals, and a team of us raced out and demon¬strated. Shearing was ready to start the next day, but the owner, when we approached him, said he had been misled by Grazcos, and to show he was fair dinkum he sacked their shearers there and then and employed a local team at the old rates. We got back to Bourke the next morning well satisfied.

Thereafter it became a battle between me and the Grazcos rep, and every train that came into Bourke would be met by me and him, and a bumping duel would take place to reach the carriages first and see who was aboard. He would poke his head in and yell “Any for Grazcos?” so I would do the same and he used to get real crazy and threaten me, or try to pro¬voke me into jobbing him, as there was always three or four police around — and they weren’t there for my protection.

We had one visit from an AWU organiser, Charlie Oliver’s brother-in-law, and I asked him to run me out to the scab shed that was behind the flood waters on the Bre road, normally only twenty six miles. We set out early in the morning on the Cunnamulla road and had to make detours through quite a few properties to get out to the shed. When we got there about 2.00 p.m., we found the station bosses were in town and only the Grazcos boss was there, and he ran for the phone to call town. The tally sheets showed that the team was learners, mostly young blokes with a couple of older scabs who ran for the huts and locked their doors. We stopped them shearing and I promised them accommodation, fares and money to leave with us, but no good. The Grazcos boss kept yelling out that the cops were coming, so at 4.30 we decided to get off the property onto the next to prevent arrest. We got off and were boiling the billy when two carloads of police arrived. An argument was soon underway but they could do nothing.

At that time the struggle was becoming hot in Queensland as Grazcos was concentrating all their scab labour in that state and Cunnamulla became known as the hangman’s town. The Cunamulla Committee boys used to go down the track to meet the trains at various sidings and drag the scabs off and burn their swags. One of the local pubs was blackballed and picketed for harbouring scabs; big patches of black paint were painted all over the pub. Violence against scabs was com¬monplace and they were given police protection. I used to go up for an occasional Sunday meeting in Cunnamulla to report on activities in Bourke, and on one Sunday the Secretary of the local committee and I were walking down the main street when he spotted a Victorian car rego plate in front of a cafe. He told me to keep my eye on it while he ran off to get some of the boys. He’d no sooner left me when five scabs ran out of the cafe, jumped in the car and left town in a hurry — they never even paid for their half-eaten dinner.

Like in Bourke, the railway workers were refusing to handle scab wool whenever the brands were made known to them. We were fortunate in Bourke and had only two flood-bound sheds to cope with, whose wool was locked away with water, but we had to watch for wool coming down from Queensland. The wharfies and seamen were in full support, realising that the attack on shearers’ wages was the tip of the iceberg for a general wage cut for all workers. At the end of June I got a message that, because of the action of railway workers and wharfies in Queensland, Grazcos were going to try and run their wool by truck through Bourke to Sydney. I rang Tom Dougherty, AWU National Secretary, and was told to stop them getting through Bourke in the middle of the night. I mustered about thirty blokes to go out and meet them, and pledged them to say nothing to anyone about what we were doing because it would draw the cops’ attention. We waited thirty miles out on the Cunnamulla road all night, then gave it away at sunrise. It turned out later that one of the trucks had engine trouble, so they were delayed.

On Saturday afternoon, when one of the boys and I were walking back from meeting the 2 o’clock train, Tom Wilson, an old-time militant shearer, who had the nickname of ‘Red Steer’ from former strikes, pulled up in his utility, and told us there were two semitrailers coming towards Bourke on the northern road. He had passed them but couldn’t see any brand on them. It was on!

My mate ran down to the Federal Hotel to ring the police to stop the trucks as they had no permit to bring wool from Queensland. I ran up the road and got a chap with a ute; he took me out towards North Bourke, and we just caught them as they were using a bypass road to avoid the town. I jumped out in front of them with my hands up and they stopped. I asked them for their permits; they never had any. Not know¬ing me, they did what I said when I told them “Drive down to the police station.” We had to show them the way. If they had driven off we couldn’t have stopped them.

Meanwhile my mate had rung the police and they said “What could they do?” — and they were doing just that when we arrived. I told the sergeant the drivers had no permits and were illegally transporting wool in New South Wales. The local inspector soon arrived and he said he would enquire about it. By this time a crowd had started to gather and began to shout and boo at the drivers; they were whisked away by the police. By 8 o’clock there was no one going to the picture show down the road, they were all at the police station. The police came out with the two drivers. I asked the inspector what he was going to do and he told me that was his business. I pointed out the lack of markings, but he ignored me. The trucks set off amid a deafening noise of boos and calls of “scabs!”, with car loads of police as escorts.

I addressed the crowd from the footpath in front of the police station, telling them that unless the trucks were stopped the unbranded wool would beat the blockade. I called for volun¬teers to go after them. Johnnie Brown’s brother had a semi; he was a wool carrier and Johnnie was a shearer. The brother raced home and got his semi and was back in ten minutes flat. We had plenty of volunteers and we had to bar drunks. The semi took about thirty on the back. It was a rough ride and Brownie was going flat out. About twenty five miles out we could see four sets of lights coming – the police escort coming back – so we laid down flat on the floor and they passed us.

We came across the two semis stopped just on the town side of a ramp. We passed them and let the boys off and we parked the semi in the middle of the ramp. The truck driver who was nearest to town had a big new white truck, and he jumped in, passed his mate, and came flat out for the ramp. I yelled to Brownie not to let him ram him or we’d all be gone, so he started up too. The white truckie took a while to get up speed with his load, with our semi weaving from side to side, and he was nearly tipping over trying to pass us, but he finally got away.

We drove back to the boys who had boarded the other semi so they grabbed that. The driver was still in his seat and he had a hammer in his hand. I told him to sit still and he’d be all right. He said, “Don’t touch my wool or my truck.” We had to hold the door of the semi to hold him in and he couldn’t use the hammer. The boys were all over the truck and one bloke was sawing at the ropes with the knife, the driver was still saying “Leave my wool alone” when – crash! – the first bale hit his bonnet. He took some holding in then. There was a deep rocky gully along the side of the road and you could hear the bales bouncing on the way down in the dark.

When the last of the bales went over the side we scooted back to town, using back roads, and dispersed before the police got on the job. I was woken at 2 a.m. but I just said I’d been in bed since 9.30. Next day two planes brought detectives from Sydney and Dubbo indicating they were taking a dim view of the wool.

They started to question everyone in town. My turn came on Monday with the local inspector, a couple of Feds and one from Dubbo. I told them that, as Secretary of the local committee, I did not condone what had happened and that I did what I thought was legal in bringing the trucks down to the police station; after that I had left and gone home to bed, and that was my story. Things had warmed up. Sydney newspapers said the truck was hijacked by a crowd of shearers wielding knives.

On the following Friday night I went up to meet the train as usual and it was an hour late, wouldn’t be in till 7.30; so I went down to the Oxford Hotel for a drink. I was talking to two chaps when in walked seven detectives, including a local bloke. He said “Oh there you are Neil, we were looking for you”. They were all smiles and laughing and wanted a yarn with me, but I said I was busy having a drink and had to meet the train after. The local bloke said it would only take a minute and they would wait outside the door.

Now I knew my rights and for once I let down my guard and went over and stood inside. The two blokes at the bar weren’t my mates, so I never asked them to listen in. The detectives said they thought I was implicated in the wool hijack. I told them I’d made my statement to them and couldn’t help them any. They said, “Do you know what happened?” I said, “I’ve heard so many stories I’m confused.” They then said they’d tell me and away they went with their story. They told me I had been recognised and that the two drivers were back in town. They wanted me to go the station for a line-up. I said not till I got legal advice, so they told me to go and do that and be at the police station at 9.00 on Saturday morning.

Being Friday night I had no idea how to contact a legal man in Sydney and the matter was urgent. There was a good solici¬tor living in Wellington who was popular out there and had done a few jobs for the ALP, so I went down to Hooder Whitebread’s place. Hooder was local secretary of the ALP. I asked him to ring up this bloke for me, and he came back in ten minutes and told me he had gone away for the weekend. On the way into town I thought it over, as Hooder was never very friendly with me, so I got his number and rang him myself.

He answered straight away and I told him the story. He told me not to go to the station in the morning, say nothing to the police and keep away from them. Next day I was walking into town when a car load of cops pulled up and said, “You must have good legal advice”, and I told them I had. They asked me what it was and I told them straight. They all laughed and drove off.

The grapevine had been active that Friday and said that three trucks were preparing to leave Queensland and would go through Bourke Saturday night. We had to be careful as elaborate steps had been taken to protect them. I did not broad¬cast this lot as most of my mates were out of town, and any rate we’d made our point.

On the Sunday afternoon I was about to go into the Royal for a drink when the publican ran out and asked me not to go in, as there was a team of station owners in the hotel with a few local cockies. They had guns stacked in the corner and had ridden shotgun on the trucks, so I steered clear.

There were a lot of wild boys from Cunnamulla shearing in Bourke at the time and they would have done a job if I’d asked them to. On that Saturday afternoon a team of scabs with Grazcos, passing through, were caught in the bar at the Royal and got a bashing. By the time I heard, they had taken off. The boys were telling me about it when a line-up of police came outside the hotel windows and then the sergeant walked in and wanted to know what was going on as a brawl was reported. I said I never saw any brawl, and look at all the boys peacefully having a drink, very happy and inoffensive. The sergeant went off very sheepish because the blokes who reported it weren’t there.

I was woken at 1 a.m. that Sunday night by a knock at the door. It was the publican from the Royal and he told me that he overheard a party of cops and cockies saying that warrants had been issued in Sydney for my arrest, and someone from Sydney was arriving on the 9.30 plane in the morning, so I’d better be prepared. I asked him if he knew of anyone going south from the hotel in the morning and he said he’d check up for me and told me to come in at seven in the morn¬ing. Sure enough, I was on my way to Bathurst at eight. From there I made my way to Bombala where I got a pen of shearing up in the Snowy Mountains. I used to go into Bombala or Delegate every week and often the boys told me the police had made enquiries about me. They had said I’d gone back to Bourke or gone to Victoria.

After about three months the last shed came and I wanted to leave for Victoria a couple of days before cut out, but the mates wanted me to wait for them and they’d come with me. On the last morning I had my head down shearing when my penmate said “Hey Neil, look at the end of the board”, and sure enough cops were all over the place.

They took me to Cooma and issued a summons. The only ones who knew where I was were the wife, the mates, and Charlie Oliver of the AWU; and I had my suspicions because I wasn’t popular with old Charlie or with Bukowski and Dougherty. I got in touch with Sydney solicitors, then I went back to Bourke, but took a trip to Sydney and went to the union office to see Tom Dougherty about the case. He was the one who had told me to stop the wool as they could do nothing up there. I was told he was up the pub with Bukowski, the Queensland Secretary. They were standing drinking at the back wall of the bar and I spotted them in the mirror when I ordered a drink. Just then they spotted me and immediately turned to face the wall with their heads down. They got a shock when I tapped them on the shoulder and asked why the police were going on with my case when all the bans and lim¬itations had been lifted and all summonses against shearers cancelled. He told me that despite numerous approaches by the union to the Attorney General they were determined to go ahead with my case and he could do nothing, but he would get the union solicitors to defend me.

I had a meeting with the locals at Bourke and they did not like the idea unless a good barrister was defending, so we sug¬gested an up and coming QC, Lionel Murphy, who had defended a few shearers in assault and damages cases during the dispute. The union agreed if we paid him. We had a sub¬stantial bank balance in local funds from a sixpence in the pound levy, so Murphy was engaged and the case was set for February 1957.

The shearing was still going on in Queensland where the dis¬pute was still under the State Award, and as there was a shortage of shearers a local contractor offered me a small shed over the border in scab country. At the cut-out the cockie wanted us out of the country as soon as possible and offered to take us back to Bourke and leave the contractor and others to clean up. We were on the back of the cockie’s ute and speeding as much as he could. One of the shearers was a Cunnamulla man and knew the scab sheds; when we were passing through scab country he had a box of matches, and putting three heads together, he struck them and was able to pitch them over the side and get quite a few strikes. The cockie couldn’t see the smoke through his dust. The contractor with the rest of the team had to fight a few fires on his way in and was hostile next day when we called for our pay. The police made a few inquiries but we had nothing to do with it as we were with the boss. Mitchell grass grows about two feet high and burns quick when dry.

The case came on in early February when there are few shear¬ers in town. Lionel Murphy and the union solicitor came in on the late plane on Sunday night and we took a car to Nyngan to get them. On the way back Murphy, whom I’d met for the first time said he couldn’t understand why they were going on with the summons in my case: “What have you done in the past?”. I told him about the Aboriginal family who’d approached me and the boy who’d died in hospital after he’d been arrested and put in jail. He said that could be it. Every one of the police was transferred after that, leaving only the old inspector in Bourke. But that’s another story.

The case opened, and all day Murphy argued legal points but never got far with the Magistrate. The following day he was so frustrated he addressed the Court with a statement: that it was impossible to defend me properly because the Magistrate was so biased; that no matter what evidence he put forward, I was going to be convicted. He said, “Under these circumstances I feel I have no alternative but to withdraw from the case. I advise my client to do the same.” He walked out and sat in the gallery. I went to go with him but was promptly sat back in my seat.

The seven police gave evidence. The first one was the local detective, and he said that in company of six others he’d approached me in the Oxford Hotel and, on questioning me, I’d admitted everything. The detectives from Dubbo and Sydney gave evidence exactly the same.

On Murphy’s advice, every time the magistrate said “Mr Byron, stand up, do you want to ask the witness any ques¬tions?” I said “Your honour, I protest on the conduct of the trial, I think you are biased”, and so on and he would say “Mr Byron, I did not ask you that. If you have no questions of the witness, please sit down.”

On the third day all seven cops and two truck drivers had given evidence, and the magistrate found me guilty under a section of the Crimes Act. The magistrate said there were two other charges, and he would defer sentence. The gallery at the time was full of reactionary cockies and their lackeys, the stock and station agents, and they let out a cheer and pissed off to the pub. Prior to the case the Feds had approached Murphy and said if I pleaded guilty to the first charge under the Crimes Act, they would drop the other two, but we knocked them back.

The second charge, under the Masters and Servants Act, was a replica of the first except when the Prosecutor was question¬ing him, the truck driver gave evidence contrary to what he said in the first. I heard Murphy say the truck driver had had dinner with the Prosecutor the previous night, so when the Beak asked me to question him, I jumped up and asked him why he’d changed his evidence. He said he’d only thought of it overnight. Then I asked him if he’d been talking to the Prosecutor overnight and he said no. I then asked him if he’d had dinner with him the night before and he said he had, but they never discussed the case. Murphy, who sat a few yards from me in the gallery, said “Enough.” The Beak asked me the usual and I answered the same as always, which continued to annoy him. I was found guilty on the second charge.

On Friday morning Murphy said to me we could blow this case. “How do you feel about going into the box and being cross-examined?” I said that was OK, and he asked me to go down to the pub where O’Dea – the solicitor the AWU had sent – was having breakfast, and tell him he was going to put me in the Box. O’Dea nearly fell out of his chair and ran up to the court to stop him. On Friday afternoon he appealed to the magistrate to finish the case on Saturday as he had big commitments in Sydney, but the Beak said there was no way this case could be finished in one day, and therefore adjourned it to Monday.

On the way to the pub where O’Dea and Murphy were stay¬ing, I told them I was fed up and was going to ring around and get a demonstration of shearers to the Court on Monday. Murphy said that was a good idea, but Cecil O’Dea went bonkers and all Friday night and Saturday never left me. He said he would talk to the magistrate and get it over quick. He appealed to the crowd in the front of the Royal on Saturday morning not to do anything and everything would be alright. I was bluffing and Murphy knew it, as there weren’t many shearers in Bourke.

On Monday at 9 a.m. the Court sat and all witnesses agreed with the Prosecutor and the Magistrate that all evidence previously given was the same as that they were about to give. So within twenty minutes they found me guilty, jumped into cars and headed off. I was fined two hundred and sixty five pounds, or one hundred and sixty eight days hard labour. By 10 a.m. not one person from the case, except myself, was left in town. They all (cops too) had cars waiting to take them to Nyngan to catch the plane. O’Dea had told the magistrate about the planned demo.

I remained Secretary of the local committee from 1957 to 1965 but got little shearing and only then from the good old blokes like Walter Hull and one contractor. Old Joe O’Brien, a market gardener in Bourke, came to me and said “Come with me and I’ll teach you gardening.” Which I did, but that’s another story.

Every three months the local inspector came to me to find out if I had any money to pay the fine, but there was none as I had a young family. I offered to go with him to the can to do time, but he wouldn’t be in that. This went on for three years. Then he came and said the Attorney General wanted the matter cleared up. He said we had plenty of money in our local shearers’ account, but I wouldn’t let the boys pay. I again said I’d go with him, and he said he’d let me know later. They knew if they put me in there, there would have been a strike in the industry. He came back in the afternoon and said the fine had been paid, and some time later I found out that Charlie Oliver had paid it to save him embarrassment.

Before Christmas we put on a party for the townspeople for their wonderful support during the dispute. So we put on a sports carnival for young and old, and bought every book in town for prizes. It was worth it because we never had a scab, and despite everyone knowing what went on the night of the hijack, they could not get one witness to front. The whole town had been united.