AFTER five days without pay out on the grass, Maryvale Mill’s Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) members and Opal Australia Paper have come to an agreement in principle.

Amid an ugly negation period, AMWU have informally accepted Opal’s enterprise agreement offer subject to a formal vote and process.

Workers returned to work on Monday night after both parties compromised following increased industrial action.

Opal said they were “pleased that we have reached in principle agreement with the AMWU, ETU and UWU in relation to the maintenance Enterprise Agreements at the Maryvale Mill.”

“All industrial action (ceased) effective 6pm Monday night,” an Opal Australia spokesperson said.

“Opal will continue to work closely with our team members to deliver a successful annual shut at the Mill in the second half of February, where important maintenance works and infrastructure projects will be undertaken.”

Opal management and the AMWU enterprise agreement negotiations reached boiling point last week on Tuesday (February 6) as the paper manufacturing company locked out staff at 5.20am.

Union flags and regalia were quickly removed from the Maryvale Mill gates on Monday morning, as quickly as they had been strung up six days prior.

Dispute: Maintenance workers were locked-out without pay during an intense industrial dispute at the Maryvale Mill. Photograph: Zaida Glibanovic

Despite lengthy negotiations, since the last enterprise agreement expired in September 2023, the two parties have not been able to agree on an adequate contract that would somewhat satisfy both management and workers until now.

“The only thing that they’ve been able to change is the numbers of the agreement, so the number of employees employed, but we’ve strengthened the clause a different way so we will still have protections from forced redundancies (etc.),” AMWU Maryvale Mill site representative, Simon Peel said.

The Latrobe Valley Express understands that the Union has compromised on clauses relating to set numbers employed and cuts to apprentices. AMWU representatives said a small win is still a win, but continue to be frustrated regarding Opal’s management of negotiations.

The FairWork Commission helped mediate the agreement in principle, during which the parties spent around 14 hours over the course of three days discussing the agreement’s principles.

“It was very intense, very time-consuming, very draining, and that’s on all parties … but at the end of the day, we’ve come out with a result,” Mr Peel said.

“It’s not ideal, it’s not what either party wanted, the Unions or management, but it’s a result, and we can move forward.

“That’s probably one big positive that all the members go back to work and start getting paid again.”

Opal Australia will now create a draft enterprise agreement and will follow the rest of the formalities with the new agreement set to be in place by the middle of March.

Negotiations between Opal management and the AMWU unsurprisingly turned sour last week after the paper company locked out the 50-odd AMWU maintenance workers in their employment.

Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and the United Workers Union (UWU) joined the AMWU’s picket line in solidarity.

According to an Opal spokesperson, The AMWU had issued multiple industrial action notices (75 notices to date) and led industrial action, including snap walkouts, which ‘severely’ impacted their business.

As a result, Opal said they made the decision under the Fair Work Act to “undertake a legal lockout of our maintenance team members covered by the AMWU Agreement, indefinitely.”

THE AMWU told the Express that the lockout came shortly after a formal meeting where Opal demanded the unions agree on the removal of member quota numbers from the enterprise agreement.

An AMWU representative suggested in this round of negotiations that Opal was coming to destabilise workers’ right to employment security.

“We want to know that we’ve got a job tomorrow, next week and next year,” they said.

Though the AMWU did not secure member numbers under the agreement, they said they would take the proposed new agreement as a compromise.

Since the closure of white paper manufacturing at the Maryvale Mill due to the end of VicForests’ wood supply, the mill has had more than 300 redundancies, which Opal said has been a major challenge.

“Ways of working that were acceptable many years ago and reflected in previous maintenance Enterprise Agreements are no longer appropriate and pose serious challenges to our Maryvale Mill, which is facing a highly competitive and international market,” an Opal statement said.

“To complete the Mill’s transformation to 100 per cent brown paper packaging, we must urgently embed new ways of working with our team members and their representatives.

“These ways of working require greater collaboration with our internal and external stakeholders, including our team members’ representatives.”

In a media statement, Opal said they had pleaded with the unions regarding their financial predicament, asking for them to consider approaches other than a “rollover”.

The Union said they recognised Opal’s financial position, but also said secure conditions of employment remained integral.

AMWU spokespeople have said Opal’s original demands posed a threat to their job stability.

“This numbers clause just ensures that they have to keep our workforce of full-time employees in place. They can’t be replaced with a contract workforce,” an AMWU representative said.

The Latrobe Valley Express understands there will be no major changes to the contractor clause with the new agreement effectively a rollover from the last, with a union representative saying talks were quite frustrating with no real improvement of working conditions.

Video footage from last week revealed buses of external employees heading into Opal’s main gate. The contractors were said to be from the New Zealand-based company HUTEC and New South Wales’ PGSR, angering many local workers locked out.

“We want to do the work. We’ve got pride in our work, and we want to do it,” the AMWU spokesperson said.

Opal has said they remain committed to securing the future of the mill.

Get off it: Despite lengthy negotiations and industrial action, Opal Australian Paper and the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union have come to an informal agreement.

“We continue to negotiate in good faith and remain open to further discussion on all items in the log of claims,” an Opal spokesperson said.

The unions certainly don’t find Opal’s negation ‘in good faith’, going through a second lockout at the Maryvale Mill in the space of four years.

Though an agreement is set to be finalised by mid-March, the general sentiments coming from workers is one of frustration, with one worker citing that the working conditions in the Mill “is not what it used to be”.

Despite the Pyrrhic victory, AMWU members say they are glad to return to work.

Though Opal’s Maryvale Mill dispute has closed, another in the region may have just begun, as Emergency Service Workers at EnergyAustralia’s Yallourn Power Station have begun taking industrial action fighting for a fair redundancy amid Yallourn’s 2028 scheduled closure.