Downtown Sacramento intersection blocked as Kaiser workers protest

About 50 members of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions blocked a downtown Sacramento intersection Monday to protest the healthcare provider’s treatment of its employees and patients.

The coalition members occupied the intersection of 5th and J streets in front of Kaiser’s downtown building. Their aim was to demonstrate against “the healthcare giant’s unfair labor practices and shift from prioritizing patients and the community to profits and enriching top executives,” according to a press release announcing the protest.

Officers with the Sacramento Police Department began citing the workers who blocked the intersection at about 11:50 a.m., 20 minutes after they began occupying the intersection.

The Labor Day protest came as Kaiser and the coalition’s bargaining team negotiate over a new contract. With the current contract set to expire on September, coalition members across the country are voting on a potential strike in October. The strike would involve more than 80,000 employees — the largest in the country since the Teamster’s walkout at United Parcel Services in 1997.

California coalition members voted to authorize the strike in mid-August.

The workers who demonstrated were part of a larger rally on Monday that involved more than a thousand Kaiser Permanente employees and their family members.

They started the morning in front of the Capitol, where speakers – including state Senator Richard Pan, D-Sacramento – expressed support for the Kaiser employees. They then marched down 10th Street and I street toward the Kaiser building, taking up the entire width of the roads.

“Kaiser, Kaiser, you can’t hide. We can see your greedy side,” they chanted as they marched.

Kaiser employees in other parts of the state also rallied on Monday. U.S. Sen. and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris spoke at a Los Angeles protest, and actor Danny Glover appeared at an Oakland event.

Coalition members say they are concerned with what they see as a shift in priorities in how Kaiser, a non-profit healthcare provider, treats employees and patients.

“For the last 20-plus years, Kaiser’s worker-manager partnership has been one of the best that we could expect in the industry,” said Elena Perez, spokeswoman for the coalition. “In the last two years, they have taken that and put it in jeopardy, and made it look more and more like corporate healthcare.”

Participants of Monday’s rally aimed to demonstrate their long history with Kaiser. They taped pieces of paper on their shirts featuring the number of years they’ve worked for the company – many for more than a decade.

Speakers at the rally also voiced concern with Kaiser’s recent management.

“We need to be sure the institution, Kaiser...is upholding the values in which we came to work for, right?” Pan said on the steps of the Capitol Monday. “Those values (are) what we’re here to fight for.”

Pan authored a bill that would hold healthcare providers such as Kaiser to the same data disclosure requirements as its competitors. SB 343 has cleared the state Legislature and awaits signature by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Coalition leaders have expressed concerns that Kaiser does not have robust enough hiring procedures and training programs to ensure its staff can properly care for an increasingly elderly patient population. Union workers are also concerned that technological advances will be used to replace them.

Sandy Sharon, senior vice president area manager of Kaiser’s Sacramento office, said that since 2015, Kaiser has grown its workforce nationally by more than 13,000 employees. She said Kaiser has proposed increased training in the new contract.

“We want to use advancing technology so we can provide the highest level of care to our patients,” she said.

Lastly, coalition leaders have demanded Kaiser protect middle-class wages and benefits for its employees.

Sharon said Kaiser’s newest proposal is an annual 3 percent wage increase for coalition members until 2022.

“We support the rights of workers to publicly demonstrate and celebrate Labor Day,” she said. “Unfortunately, there were acts of civil disobedience that taxed our city and police resources.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Elaine Chen, from the University of Chicago, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in the Bay Area and later in Beijing, China.