Four Dems vie to challenge Republican labor commissioner

by Jordan Green

A crowded field of Democrats face off in the May 6 primary in hopes of winning the opportunity to challenge Republican Cherie Berry, a two-term incumbent, for the job of state labor commissioner in November.

The campaign may prove to be a referendum not only on the tenure of Berry, the former owner of a Catawba County spark-plug manufacturer whose leadership has garnered accolades from industry groups, but also those of her two predecessors at the Labor Department.

John C. Brooks, a 71-year-old political veteran from Raleigh who headed the department from 1977 to 1991, put his name on the ballot on the last day of filing. Among his opponents is Mary Fant Donnan of Winston-Salem, who worked under his successor at the department. Harry Payne, a beloved commissioner in labor and progressive circles, defeated Brooks in a bitter 1992 contest. On the strength of its relationship with Payne, the state AFL-CIO gave its endorsement to Donnan. Two other candidates have also entered the race: Robin Anderson of Cary and Ty Richardson of Middlesex. Richardson could not be reached for this story.

Anderson, a lawyer in private practice who specializes in wage payment and workplace discrimination litigation and who chairs the state Personnel Commission, has not allowed Brooks and Donnan’s political ties deter her. Anderson has raised more money than her Democratic opponents, secured the endorsement of the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg and lobbed pointed barbs at Berry.

“This is a Democratic year,” Anderson said. “All Republicans will be under scrutiny. However, it’s going to take a strong candidate to beat her. I have the experience that is necessary. I’m not afraid to talk about her failures, and will hit these issues head on.”

Anderson’s campaign has drawn particular emphasis on a recent investigation by the Charlotte Observer that suggested the House of Raeford company has willfully masked injuries and safety violations at its poultry processing plants.

“As commissioner of labor, I will support the employees of the Department of Labor to do their jobs,” she said. “For example, I will remove the handcuffs and back the investigators in their efforts to enforce compliance of the law against businesses that don’t play by the rules. One hundred and thirty citations were issued against House of Raeford. The fines were reduced from approximately $202,000 to $47,000. Cherie Berry has said that a company won’t change its ways because of fines. When a company willfully violates the laws, those laws need to be enforced.”

Berry has defended her administration’s performance in protecting workers’ rights, and responded that training and education in workplaces are more effective than stiff penalties in keeping workers safe.

The 71-year-old Brooks, who is currently employed as a staff attorney at the NC Industrial Commission, said he is the candidate with the experience to reverse any regression in enforcement that may have occurred under Berry’s watch.

“I’m very aware of the problems in the department at the present time, and I do know how to remedy them,” he said. “And I have the will to do it. I thought I would run and see if I could get it back on track.”

Recent revelations of abuses in North Carolina poultry plants may ring familiar. In 1991, under the Brooks administration, a grease fire swept through the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, killing 26 workers all told in the state’s worst industrial disaster. The Hamlet plant lacked fire alarms and water sprinklers, and workers found themselves trapped because the doors had been barred to prevent them from stealing chickens.

Brooks said he had been in the process of implementing standards that would have prevented the Hamlet tragedy when he was voted out of office.

“The law today is precisely the same as it was ten days before that fire occurred,” he said. “The lessons from that have not been implemented. We held hearings. We drafted new [occupational safety and health] standards. Before it could be implemented, my successor took office and he did not implement it…. The Hamlet plant was never registered with the Secretary of State, so we didn’t know it existed. They were in violation of that law. Had an inspection been made, the plant could not have been cited for those things that gave rise to the fatalities. Had the building code been an OSHA standard, then the locked doors and obstructed path would have been citable.”

Among his accomplishments during his four terms as commissioner, Brooks took credit for implementing a blood-borne pathogen safety standard; annual inspections of chicken processing plants; and a practice of inspecting migrant labor camps, requiring that they provide hot running water and prohibiting them from locking workers in at night.

Brooks said if he is able to get his old job back, he will reorient the department’s apprenticeship program to attract better paying jobs to the state, emphasizing skilled trades over prison guard work. He added that by ramping up inspections, he could reduce workplace injuries and bring down the cost of insurance, thus allowing small businesses to pass along savings to workers in the form of vacation time and other benefits.

Many in the state’s organized labor establishment remember with fondness the administration of Brooks’ successor, Harry Payne, who currently chairs the state Employment Security Commission. James Andrews, president of the state AFL-CIO, gave Payne credit for implementing a state ergonomics standard that has since been dismantled by the US Labor Department under President Bush, and for honoring workers killed on the job with an annual ceremony.

Though the state labor federation is happy with the field of candidates, it was Donnan’s association with Payne that ultimately set her apart.

“We had three extremely qualified candidates to appear before us,” Andrews said. “Former Commissioner John C. Brooks with experience in the office. Robin Anderson: People were truly impressed with her and thought she would do a great job. Mary won the endorsement because of her recent experience in the Department of Labor. She’s worked there before. She came to us with the support of the former commissioner, Harry Payne. I think that was the deciding factor.”

The labor federation president also praised the Republican incumbent’s emphasis on training and education.

“Better than a big stick and a fine later, certainly the families of workers believe it’s important to have prevention and education in place beforehand,” Andrews said. “The current commissioner has spent a considerable amount of time on that front, which she should be commended for, but the committee thought Mary brings a higher sense of urgency to this work.”

In comparison to Brooks and Anderson, Donnan’s comments on the performance record of the Berry administration take a more moderate tone. As research and policy director under Commissioner Payne, Donnan displays a more analytic approach that relies upon taking in a wider array of information than her opponents, whose background as lawyers lends them a style of impassioned advocacy.

“What’s not understood is the balance between the carrot and the stick, offering training on one hand and setting a tone that egregious violations will not be tolerated on the other hand,” Donnan said. “When you’re on the outside, you don’t know exactly what’s going on in the department. What I’ve heard is that some of the willingness to mitigate these fines and negotiate them down has not given workers’ confidence. As to a philosophy of ‘prevention first,’ amen.”

As labor commissioner, Donnan said she would collaborate well with other departments in the council of state and with the General Assembly, and involve herself in policy discussions more than has Berry. She said the state’s understanding of a living wage needs to be brought up to date, and she would turn to the left-leaning NC Justice Center for guidance on how to do that.

None of the three candidates were aware of a recent disclosure by the Labor Department that because of a backlog in wage payment complaints investigators were ordered last year to make only two phone calls to employers before closing cases. From 2005 to 2007, the number of cases in which employers have failed to respond to state investigators has increased eightfold. A limited YES! Weekly investigation uncovered about a dozen instances of the bureau failing to collect unpaid wages for Guilford County workers over a one-year period, sometimes resulting in significant financial hardship for employees.

“That’s not acceptable,” Brooks said. “If you need more wage and hour investigators, then they should be advocating to the General Assembly strenuously that they need to budget that.”

Anderson said she would ramp up enforcement, a realm in which she boasts experience by virtue of litigating cases on behalf of clients who come to her after the Labor Department notifies them that they should pursue their claims on their own.

“During the eight years that Berry has been commissioner of labor, not only has she not allowed her staff to vigorously pursue employers’ violations of wage and hour law, the department has been denied the opportunity to file suit on behalf of North Carolina workers,” Anderson said. “As commissioner of labor, it will be one of my priorities to actively pursue, including through the legal system, willful violations against companies failing to pay their workers a fair day’s wage.”

In an interview in February, Berry cited lawsuits against Barber-Scotia College, Midway Airlines and Pillowtex as examples of her administration using the courts to recover money owed to employees, but said the department also has to look at the probability of success and make the best use of limited resources before it decides to litigate on behalf of complainants.

Donnan said she’s heard that the department currently boasts a good collection rate on wage payment claims. She added that she would review current procedures, and consider increasing education for workers to help them learn how to better vet potential employers.

The Democratic nominee will have to raise some money to effectively challenge Berry, who reported a campaign war chest of $24,535 at the end of 2007, and who raised a total of $224,076 in a tight race against Democratic challenger Wayne Goodwin in 2004.

Anderson leads the Democratic candidates this time around with $16,674, while Donnan has raised $4,649. Brooks said he hasn’t started raising money yet.

Donnan was reluctant to directly criticize her opponents, but said her policy background and ability to work well with others sets her apart.

Anderson displayed no such hesitation.

“It is my understanding that Mary has a background in research and policy, working with the primary commissioner eight years ago, and does not have the experience to fight for workers’ rights on the front lines,” she said. “As to John Brooks, he has not been involved in the Department of Labor in over fifteen years. One of the things we’ve learned about Berry is her failure to adequately inspect factories. I will work hard to prevent tragedies such as the 1991 Hamlet fire. I will not only fight for safe workplaces, but help honest businesses succeed in creating jobs that pay a fair wage.”

Brooks, who began his career in state government almost half a century ago in the administration of Gov. Terry Sanford, noted that he has more campaign experience than his rivals.

“I have not observed any significant advocacy on the part of the current commissioner of labor and that bothers me greatly,” he said. “That’s one of the things that compels me to run again. Someone could say, ‘He’s done that, been there, why do it again?’ I’m not doing it for the experience. The workers across the state are in a worse state today than they were in 1992 when I left office.

“The gap between the wages of the average worker and the average executive salary in North Carolina has widened significantly,” Brooks added. “I’m the only person around who has defeated a seated member of the council of state, and that’s what I did in 1976 when I was elected commissioner of labor.”

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