SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Workplace Safety Top Issue in Labor Race
State Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry has an answer to critics of her approach to workplace safety: the Raleigh Convention Center.
The 500,000-square-foot convention center was recently completed after three years of construction. The project involved hundreds of workers. During that span, only one workplace accident involving one worker was recorded on the site.
It wasn't happenstance, Berry recently told me. The project's two primary contractors approached safety inspectors in her agency as construction began, asking that they work cooperatively to try to avoid accidents.
Berry cites the project's workplace safety record as an example showing that her philosophy of cajoling and cooperating with business -- rather wielding a harsh penalty hammer over its head -- has worked in making North Carolina workplaces safer.
"We try to take care of things on the front end," Berry said. "All I want is for people to be safe. My goal is to get the hazard fixed as fast as possible."
Berry, 61, a Republican, is seeking her third term as labor commissioner. She won the post in 2000 after spending several years in the state House of Representatives and running an automotive parts supply company in Catawba County.
Berry's Democratic opponent, Mary Fant Donnan, doesn't agree with her approach to the job.
Donnan believes that the department shouldn't be seen as being in partnership with business or labor, and has to be an impartial decider of what is best for both sides.
It's a criticism that has found some resonance after The Charlotte Observer reported that many workplace injuries in the poultry industry appear to go unreported and that some poultry plants haven't been inspected for several years. The newspaper series also raised questions about whether fines for serious workplace safety violations were inordinately low.
Donnan, 46, worked seven years under former Labor Commissioner Harry Payne. She currently works for the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
Despite Donnan's talk of impartiality, the race clearly shapes up as a business-versus-labor contest.
Donnan has received the endorsements of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters. She also supports an increase in the minimum wage and a repeal of the state's ban on collective bargaining by public sector workers.
Berry speaks openly about opposing unions and unionization.
In an election year that looks increasingly favorable for Democrats, Berry may need to worry.
Then again, the political landscape hasn't shifted so much that North Carolina has suddenly transformed into a union-friendly state, a fact that will certainly play in her favor.
Berry might also take comfort in the history of down-ballot races. Established incumbents in low-profile statewide offices like labor commissioner typically must shoot a puppy, or insult mom and apple pie, to lose.
But it's an odd year. Donnan, even without a lot of campaign resources to mount a statewide media campaign, could benefit from a Democratic tide.
If so, she won't be alone.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at email@example.com
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