by Andrew Jackson After a three-year battle, workers at G&K O'Connor meatworks in Packenham, Victoria, stand to win hundreds of thousands of dollars in backpay, following a Federal Court ruling that they were being paid under an incorrect award. The Australian Meat Industry Employees' Union (AMIEU) says the company colluded with then Federal Industrial Relations Minister Peter Reith on how best to rip-off its workers. The dispute began in late 1998 when O'Connor's attempted to reduce workers' wages by 17 per cent by moving them on to individual contracts. When that failed the workers were subjected to one of the longest lockouts in Australian industrial history — nine months between March and November 1999. Upon their return to work, O'Connor's would only pay them under a Federal "safety net" award, offering up to $500 a week less than their previous enterprise agreement. After a two-year court battle, Justice Conti of the Federal Court ruled that the Union was correct in its argument that the original 1992 Agreement still applied. He found that although the meatworkers' Agreement had expired, it would remain valid until a new agreement was reached. O'Connor's action of reverting to the Award, which offered workers up to 60 per cent less than their agreement was incorrect. This ruling may have ramifications for workers across Australia whose enterprise agreements have ended, but employers have not signed a new agreement. The Secretary of the AMIEU, Graham Bird, said, "The decision handed down by the Federal Court is a huge win for our members, and a vindication of the Union's position. "There are many families whose livelihoods have been depending on this decision and they will hopefully finally see some financial relief after two years of hardship and intimidation imposed on them by their employer." Mr Bird said that the decision raised question about the role of the Federal Government in the dispute. Like many other acts of industrial bastardry over the past few years, the trail of slime in this dispute can be followed all the way to Canberra. Mr Bird pointed out, "There are still more than 750 secret documents in Tony Abbott's office on this dispute. "We believe these documents would reveal government advice and assistance to this employer. "Given this decision today, there are serious questions to be asked about whether the Federal Government has given advice to an employer that has assisted them in fundamentally breaking the law in order to cut workers' wages and conditions." Justice Conti of the Federal Court will rule next month on the exact amount of backpay owed to the workers, with O'Connor's saying they are examining "all their options".