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No. 19 (August 1957)
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Shearing has been the great standby for many Maori families for generations. When there were very few sources of ilncome the shearing gangs in spring were always a certainty of some money to pay the storekeper. Many gangs went to live by the shearing sheds; others who could stay at their homes started off before dawn on their horses to reach the sheds in time for the first shift and were heard to gallop back through the pa long after everyone else had gone to bed.

Although there are many other sources of livelihood now, there are still thousands who depend on shearing and the round of casual jobs in the off-season. They use trucks instead of horses, their working conditions have much improved, but essentially the life has not changed: secure and happy, but always a hard life where fighting exhaustion is part of the day's routine and where strength and adroitness are admired more than almost anywhere in the modern world.

Nobody has ever written the history of shearing. Books contain very little about when shearing gangs were first introduced into New Zealand, and what shearing conditions were like in the very early days. No doubt sheepfarmers modelled their methods on the Australian stations. If there are any early documents on shearing, Te Ao Hou would be glad to see them.

One of the best living authorities on New Zealand shearing is Mr R. Tutaki, M.B.E., who has been in the shearing industry for well over fifty years, and since 1920 has represented the New Zealand Workers' Union among Hawkes Bay shearers.

Bob Tutaki was born at Ruahapia, near Hastings. He went to Te Aute College, but at the age of eighteen, rather than continue his studies, he took up shearing with his father, Panapa Stewart.

Panapa was a lay reader of the Church of England and was given the job of boss of his shearing gang by Archdeacon Williams. Bob remembers some fine stories about these early years. His father had been given his job partly because of the moral influence he would exert on his gang. Every night after tea there was an evening service. A special feature of this service was, according to Bob Tutaki, the way his father dealt with shearing flirtations. He would ask the young man and woman involved, at the end of the service, whether they intended to marry. If they said they had no such intention, they knew they had lost their job, a severe penalty in those days.

Leadership in Shearing

The greatest shearer of Mr Tutaki's youth was Raihania who with the narrow cut machine used in that period could shear as many as 343 sheep a day. He died, unbeaten, about 1924 at the age of fifty-six. Machine shearing was introduced in 1898, the first machine having only ten teeth. At about 1910 the modern wide-cut machine of 13 teeth first appeared—the Wolesley sheep shearing machine.

After a few years, Bob Tutaki himself became the ringer of his gang. The ringer (the man who rings the bell at starting and stopping time) was also the boss of the gang.

I asked Mr Tutaki whether it was difficult to maintain one's authority in such a gang. The important thing, said Mr Tutaki, is the struggle against the sheep. There should be a proper balance between the wishes of the man and the sheep. If the sheep is given too much freedom, it never gets shorn. On the other hand, if it gets irritated that can be just as bad. A champion shearer ‘sees the day out rather than fighting his opponent. He sits and smiles while other men are cursing and swearing.’

Respect for the leader is therefore mainly based on his shearing tallies. Bob Tutaki admits that ringers will go to great lengths to avoid being beaten. A familiar one is to ring the bell just after picking up a sheep. Nobody else can pick up a sheep after that, which helps to build up the tally. At one time, Bob himself fell into the bad habit of shearing carelessly to improve his speed. In one shed, the owner noticed it. At lunch time, Bob found that while the other sheep were all let out, his were kept in their pen. The next day the same

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thing happened. Bob knew what this meant: the third time he would have got the sack. He improved his style at once, and to his surprise, he found this did not lower his tallies. He never tried rough shearing again.

Cowards Modern Conditions

At the beginning of the century, when Bob Tutaki began shearing, shed and working conditions were very much worse than today. Both the sleeping quarters and the food left much to be desired, one of the main bones of contention being that whereas station owners all provided bread and meat, they were not compelled to provide anything else. Particularly butter was a food the lack of which was often severely felt; a hard-working shearer needs a lot of it.

Bob Tutaki tells a story of one shed where conditions were particularly poor: nothing to sleep on except bad straw, no room for eating, and no privies at all. Evidently the owner of this shed had some difficulties in finding shearers and Bob and his gang were only diverted to it at the last moment to help the farmer out.

Mr Tutaki tells how, after seeing the conditions, he worked out his own plan of campaign. On the first day, the farmer checking on the work of the gang, found that Bob himself had left the heads of some of the sheep unshorn. Very irate, the farmer led them back, what was the meaning of this? ‘Never mind about those sheep. You can shear their heads yourself if you like’, said Bob.

Picture icon

Mr Robert Tutaki. (Russell Orr Photo.)

‘So you want me to turn out a complete job, do you?’ The farmer indicated that that was indeed what he expected. ‘But what about you? Do you turn out a complete job? Look at that fallen down shed where we have to live. When you came round this morning you saw where we were sitting. We were eating outside, on the grass. You know why that was: it was because there is no room inside our quarters to have a meal. And what did you give us? Nothing except tea, bread and meat. Yet you had your own breakfast inside, with jam and butter, and in comfort. And did you have a look at the straw on which we had to sleep? It was damp. If you turn out a complete job, I shall do the same.’

The effect of this, said Bob, was electric. For the rest of that stay, the shearers all had their meals in the kitchen and a few hours after their conversation a truck arrived outside the shearers' quarters carrying new mattresses and other supplies.

The struggle for better conditions became Bob's preoccupation. Joining the Agricultural and Pastoral Union in 1906, he became one of the pioneers of unionism of pastoral workers in his district.

The first shearers' award in New Zealand dates from 1902 and is based on an agreement between the sheep-owners and shearers of Canterbury. Otago followed suit soon after.

First Wellington Award

It was not until 1908 that the first Wellington Shearers' Award was negotiated. On the side of the shearers, the advocates were C. Graindler, R. Eddy, Jack Townsend, Arthur Cook and Bob Tutaki. The list of persons, firms and companies with which these representatives entered into agreement occupies twenty-eight pages of print. A breach of award by any party was made punishable with up to a £100 fine. This provision is still in force in respect of unions, associations and employers; the maximum fine for workers is now £10.

In essentials, this first agreement already contained most of the conditions of today. The shearing rate was then £1 per hundred sheep, double for rams, and stud sheep by mutual agreement. It was laid down that the dining room should be lighted until 9 p.m., that the owner was to supply implements, free grazing for one horse, and a sufficiency of good food, including jam and 1 ¼ lbs. weekly (today it is 1 ½) of the contested butter.

This last point was a bit of a victory, for in the 1902 Canterbury award there was no mention of butter and in the 1906 Canterbury award only 1 lb. was specified.

One difference was that in those days there was no limitation to the number of learners to be admitted (this gradually came in until now only one learner is allowed to five shearers). Also, there was only one shearers' representative in a shed

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instead of the present number of three.

In all this Mr Tutaki took an active part. He was already then the Union's representative among the shearers of Hawkes Bay. He was in the deputation that saw the Farmers Federation and later the Minister of Labour.

Until 1920, he continued to combine this work with his ordinary shearing. He helped to collect dues, and to go through the almost annual business of negotiating shearing rates by conciliation or arbitration.

The passing of the Shearers Accommodation Act 1919 was a further victory for shearers, increasing the control on the standard of shearers' quarters. Inspectors in those years were active in enforcing the regulation, often helped by union reports.

In 1920, the N.Z.W.U. (which in 1910 had taken over from the A.P.U.) met with a rival in the form of the Mataura Maori Shearers' Association which was, according to Mr Tutaki's story, sponsored by the sheepowners, and attempted to split the Maori shearers of Hawkes Bay from the general union. This Association employed four organisers who toured the district in cars and promised free doctors and medicine to their adherents.

‘In the second year’, says Bob Tutaki, ‘I pushed them off the road. I followed them around wherever they went and talked to the workers in the sheds. I reminded the workers of the bad old days and the achievements of the unions.’ Evidently something went wrong with the organisation of the medical benefits and some doctors and chemists did not honour the Association's membership cards. Anyhow, it seems to have gone out of existence after 1921.

To Mr Tutaki this meant a vital change in his career. To cope with the Association, he had been appointed full-time union organiser, and after 1921