What was achieved?

The Longford protest camp on Friday.
The Longford protest camp on Friday.


THE protest camp at Longford should be all packed up by today's deadline, as one of Australia's longest-running disputes comes to an end.

But what was it all about, and was anything achieved?

The dispute was sparked in 2017 when Esso's contractor UGL sacked 230 offshore and onshore maintenance workers after they refused 30 to 40 per cent pay cuts and a new roster.

At its centre was the right for workers to negotiate their own terms and conditions.

UGL used a shelf company, MTCT, to hire a handful of workers from Western Australia who signed an enterprise agreement, which was then applied to the remainder of the 200-plus workforce in Victoria. Those who signed the agreement did not work in the local area.

The sacked workers, some of whom had worked in Esso facilities for more than 40 years, are members of the Electrical Trades Union, Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union and the Australian Workers' Union.

The tactic used by UGL is not unlawful, but unions believe it is not in the spirit of workplace negotiations, and the laws need to be changed.

Those on the protest line had hoped for the election of a Labor government when voters went to the ballot box in May, with former opposition leader Bill Shorten having committed to changing workplace laws to outlaw what he said were "sham" agreements.

Many had expected the protest line to disband after Labor lost the election, but it continued past the two year mark, ending at more than 700 days, when the agreement was reached.

The dispute was also one of the catalysts for a national Change the Rules Campaign, which is putting the spotlight on issues including the need for industrial law changes, wage theft, cuts in penalty rates, the gender pay gap, casualisation in workplaces, health, safety and environment issues, tax avoidance by corporations and the need for better TAFE funding.

Ending with a whimper rather than a bang late last week, it is difficult to see any big winners, with the dispute likely to have cost the parties involved millions of dollars.

It has caused bitter rifts between the companies involved and their workers.

It has pitted workmates against each other, including those who chose to continue working under the new agreement and those who refused.

Trust and morale have been eroded and reputations dented.

There have been allegations of threats, harassment, bullying, lies and even violence.

Parties have been dragged into expensive court actions.

The wounds run deep, yet union leaders say the dispute has had its achievements.

Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union organiser Steve Dodd said the dispute had highlighted the use of "sham agreements" to cut wages and conditions, and put the spotlight on corporations dodging tax.

And he doubted many corporations would be likely to pursue the "loophole" in future, after seeing what had happened.

Other wins include a commitment to re-employ an unspecified number of the sacked workers at a higher rate, although many details of the agreement remain confidential.

Esso has repeatedly distanced itself from the dispute, saying it was a matter for UGL.

UGL has consistently declined to comment.