The Federal Court of Australia has issued fines totalling $1 million to 117 construction workers who went on strike against Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) orders.

The workers walked off the job in 2008 to put pressure on their employer to pay them severance pay.  The AIRC ordered them to return to work the same day, but most of the workers refused to return to work for up to a further week. 

The Court held that the workers had taken unlawful industrial action under the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act, and had breached the Workplace Relations Act by ignoring the AIRC’s order to return to work.  The judge held that the workers’ conduct was not "inadvertent or genuinely believed to be lawful” but “was a concerted exercise aimed at disrupting the performance of work, in order to exert pressure on [the employer]”.  The workers were aware that their action was unlawful as they had been told as such by their employer and their own union representatives, and had been served with the AIRC’s order. 

This is a rare case where individual employees have been fined directly.  The Court felt that direct fines were warranted to deter such conduct which was “deliberate and calculated”.  The union was absolved from liability, as the workers had taken the unlawful industrial action despite the union advising against it.  The workers were issued with fines according to the number of days (ranging from one to eight) that they went on strike, with 85 workers receiving the maximum fine of $10,000 for participating in all eight days of unlawful industrial action.

A link to the case can be found here: Director of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate v Abbott (No 6) [2013] FCA 942