A NEGOTIATED agreement including wage increases and the re-employment of an unspecified number of sacked maintenance workers has brought an end to one of Australia's longest-running industrial disputes.
The bitter dispute between workers, Esso and its contractor UGL ended with little fanfare last week after more than 700 days, as work began to dismantle the protest camp outside Longford Gas Plants.
The camp had been manned around the clock by unionists, sacked workers and supporters, for more than two years.
Neither side is a big winner, with the cost of the dispute likely to have run into millions of dollars in increased security at the site for Esso, legal costs for both sides, lost wages for workers, and costs borne by unions supporting the sacked workers.
It has taken a huge toll on those involved and their families, and has been a thorn in the side of Esso this year as it has sought to shift the focus to the 50th anniversary of offshore natural gas being delivered to its first customers.
Electrical Trades Union organiser for Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley Peter Mooney confirmed on Friday that an agreement had been reached between UGL and its subsidiary MTCT and the Australian Workers' Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union, the ETU and members, bringing the dispute to an end.
"The parties have agreed to a number of issues relating to ending the dispute and to re-establish a constructive working relationship for the benefit of all parties," he added.
The details of the agreement are confidential, but AWU Victorian vice-president Ben Davis told ABC Radio on Friday that as part of the agreement there was an expectation of an improvement in wages being offered.
And at the camp site on Saturday, AMWU organiser Steve Dodd said under the agreement, some people would be employed over time at various UGL sites across Australia, although these jobs may not be in the oil and gas industry.
Other details have not been disclosed.
Mr Dodd said the dispute had been difficult for the workers involved, affecting mental health and families, and said they were relieved it was over.
"These guys have been under strain here every day watching other people do their jobs," he added.
But he also said the dispute had its achievements, highlighting the use of "sham agreements" to cut wages and conditions and putting the spotlight on corporations dodging tax.
"These guys are working class heroes," Mr Dodd said, of those who had manned the protest camp.
"We've learnt a lot of lessons on this journey," he added.
"I can't think of anything we've done wrong."
Mr Dodd said this experience would prove useful going into future disputes.
Speaking on ABC Radio, Mr Davis conceded there had been compromise on all sides to bring an end to what he believed was the longest-running picket line in 45 years.
"It's highlighted why industrial laws are not working the way they should be," he said.
Mr Davis said UGL and the three unions had been negotiating for the past couple of months, and two to three different proposals had been put to members.
The end of the dispute provoked a range of responses from workers, and Mr Davis said some did not want to return to work for the company.
"There's a whole spectrum of emotions," he said. "It's taken its toll on people.
"I'm sure UGL and Esso have learnt a lot from this dispute."
He also had a clear message for the companies involved.
"Never again put a workforce through what these guys have been put through for two years," he said.
The union leaders appeared relieved rather than overjoyed at the outcome, Mr Dodd saying the agreement reached was "as good as we could have negotiated under current laws" and the members had "reluctantly" agreed to the settlement.
Mr Davis simply said the workers would be in a better position than they were when they were picketing.
An Esso spokesperson said the company welcomed the unions' decision to end their protest.
He added Esso "was not party to discussions between UGL and unions" and told the Gippsland Times to direct inquiries to UGL or the unions.
A UGL spokesperson declined to comment. Surplus items from the camp will go to charities.