Teamsters Accuse Kmart of Spying on Workers
CHICAGO (AP) _ Forty-three Kmart Corp. employees accused the company in a lawsuit Tuesday of illegally spying on workers at an Illinois distribution warehouse that recently became Kmart’s first unionized site.
Kmart said it hired investigators to probe excessive waste at the warehouse but denied any wrongdoing.
The lawsuit contends that Kmart hired at least two private investigators in 1992 to pose as workers at the warehouse in Manteno, about 45 miles south of Chicago.
The investigators pretended to befriend workers while reporting their private lives and views about unionism to Kmart management, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges violations of the state privacy law, fraud, deceit and breach of contract. It seeks a court order that the company halt such conduct and pay unspecified compensatory and punitive damages to plaintiffs.
Cook County Circuit Judge Mary Jane Theis ordered a Thursday hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion that they be granted speedy access to the company’s records.
Kmart workers at Manteno voted 219-212 in July to join the Teamsters union. The company has appealed the vote to the National Labor Relations Board.
Phillip Snelling, a Chicago lawyer retained by the Teamsters to represent the plaintiffs, said the lawsuit had nothing to do with the NLRB appeal.
″This is a purely personal action by the employees that are affected by this activity ... to make sure this conduct ceases and is not repeated,″ he said.
The lawsuit did not preclude the possibility the Teamsters will file a complaint with the NLRB alleging the company improperly interfered with union organizing activities, Snelling said.
Kmart said in a statement that it used an outside agency to investigate excessive waste at Manteno. It said the probe resulted in the breakup of a theft ring and ended ″months before the union election process ever began.″
Kmart said that like other companies, it occasionally hires investigators ″to protect corporate assets and the safety of associates while they are on the job.″
The plaintiffs contended they learned of the spying several months ago when they received an anonymous package containing invoices and a report prepared for Kmart management by Confidential Investigative Consultants Inc.
The report included transcripts of conversations between two alleged spies and the employees, covering such topics as where an employee shopped, a female employee’s living arrangements, an employee’s off-duty fishing plans and employees’ views about unionism.
″I felt betrayed by the company, and I feel we have no choice but to fight back,″ plaintiff Lewis Hubbell, a 28-year Kmart worker, said in a statement released by the Teamsters.
Last Friday, employees at a Kmart distribution warehouse in Greensboro, N.C., voted 249-132 to join the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. Workers at a third warehouse in Newman, Ga., petitioned for a union vote last week.