Appin mine staff supervisors and engineers have secured their first collective enterprise agreement after a three-year dispute ended yesterday.
The 70 employees, comprising under-managers, planners, surveyors and engineers, voted unanimously by ballot for the agreement with their employer Illawarra Coal, a subsidiary of BHP Billiton.
The protracted dispute to collectively protect their conditions was played out in the Federal Court and Fair Work Australia.
At the centre of the negotiations was a difference of opinion in the interpretation surrounding the "good faith bargaining laws".
Catherine Bolger, of the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers of Australia, said the landmark case was determined in the union's favour by Federal Court Judge Geoffrey Flick last year.
Justice Flick found that once a Majority Support Determination (MSD) had been made declaring that the majority of employees wanted to bargain towards a single-enterprise agreement, their employer was required to bargain in good faith.
In March 2012, the full bench of Fair Work Australia made a landmark ruling finding BHP had not bargained in good faith and that good faith bargaining required "genuine consideration" to be given to proposals.
The ruling was the first time a tribunal full bench had addressed at length what it meant for employers and unions to bargain in good faith under the Fair Work Act.
The Federal Court later upheld that ruling. Judge Flick found that employers could not sit mute during enterprise bargaining like a "disinterested suitor".
Ms Bolger said that decision paved the way for both sides to then approach negotiations with the intention of concluding a deal.
"This is a landmark case. It serves as a signal to employees across Australia that if a majority of employees want an enterprise agreement, they can achieve it," Ms Bolger said. "Workers in Australia have a right to have their employer respect their choice to bargain collectively, and be represented by their union."
The staff's conditions were now wrapped up in a legally binding agreement of transparent employment terms and conditions that ensured that no-one could be left behind on individual contracts with lesser conditions. The agreement also addressed overtime, redundancy and accident cover.
"There are now the same common conditions for everyone," Ms Bolger said. "Appin staff have worked really hard to achieve this agreement, however, their hard work will make it much easier for other employees, which is a great achievement. It shows that a small group of employees has been able to succeed in establishing a first ever agreement with a large, initially unwilling, employer in BHP."
A spokesperson for Illawarra Coal yesterday confirmed that a majority of staff supervisors at Appin Mine had voted in favour of the enterprise agreement and said the company looked forward to continuing to work with its employees.