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Sonoma County business leaders on Wednesday morning heard two different messages about the local economy, one from a UCLA economist and the other from protesters who briefly but raucously interrupted an annual breakfast meeting.

The economist, Jerry Nickelsburg, congratulated an estimated 500 business people “on a very vibrant economy” here that in the past few years has enjoyed record job growth. Meanwhile, the protesters, some of whom entered the Double Tree Hotel ballroom in Rohnert Park where the breakfast was held, lamented that working people in Sonoma County must contend with soaring rents and stagnant wages.

The protesters’ 10-minute interruption of the annual State of the County breakfast was punctuated by chants of “We do the work” and “No contract, no peace.” The latter was a reference to the ongoing labor contract dispute between the county and its largest union, Service Employees International Union Local 1021.

The program came to a halt until Rohnert Park police arrived and asked the more than 40 protesters in the room to leave. They were part of an estimated 300 demonstrators from SEIU and the North Bay Organizing Project who arrived before most of the breakfast guests Wednesday, causing many business people to search beyond the Double Tree for a place to park their cars.

Once they’d departed the room, both Nickelsburg and Board of Supervisors Chairman Efren Carrillo separately took to the podium to give presentations. Carrillo’s speech included the announcement that he won’t run for re-election this year.

Economist Nickelsburg told the guests that Wednesday’s demonstration was itself a sign of a strong labor market.

“This wouldn’t have happened in 2009,” a year into the recession, said Nickelsburg. He is a regular speaker for the annual breakfast and an adjunct professor with UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.

California and the county are enjoying record levels of employment, he said, and the state also is benefiting from peak numbers of international travelers flying into Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The county’s job total was 205,200 last month, with an unemployment rate of 4.2 percent, according to state figures. In contrast, in December 2009 the county had 175,200 jobs, and unemployment was 10 percent.

Nickelsburg predicted 3 percent growth for the nation’s gross domestic product this year, with the Bay Area continuing to outperform the United States.

While growth eventually will slow, he said, it will do so mostly because growing companies will find it increasingly difficult to hire more workers, a major ingredient for boosting business output.

To those who maintain that the official unemployment rate fails to account for those forced to take part-time work or to retire early, Nickelsburg suggested after his speech that it nonetheless remains a reasonable gauge for measuring those actually looking for work today.

He predicted the state’s annual unemployment rate for this year will decline to 5.2 percent from 6.2 percent in 2015.

“That’s real full employment,” Nickelsburg told the audience.

After the breakfast, Carrillo readily agreed with demonstrators that “a tale of two counties” can exist when it comes to the economy and its effects on local residents.

“Poverty is real in Sonoma County,” he said. However, he disputed the demonstrators’ suggestion that county supervisors are failing to respond to the needs of lower-income people.

A common concern voiced in the protest involved rising rents. By the end of September, the average rent on a county apartment had increased more than 40 percent in four years to $1,719 a month.

Gervacio Peña, president of the Graton Day Labor Center, told demonstrators that any increase in wages that farmworkers have received recently is “not nearly close enough to pay the rent increases.”

“We need to be able to find a way to provide for our families,” said Peña, whose message was translated from Spanish into English.

Omar Medina, president of the organizing project, contrasted the workers’ messages with the planned presentation at the breakfast meeting, saying “it’s a different picture than what they’re going to share.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit

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