Runoff vote is Tuesday for N.C. labor commissioner

It's a shame a critical vote has to come at a time when voter interest and participation are certain to be precariously low. Yet on Tuesday Democrats, along with independents who voted in the May 2 Democratic primary, will go to the polls to pick a nominee for state labor commissioner.

If you're in one of those groups, pay attention. The state urgently needs a new leader in the labor department. Incumbent Republican Cherie Berry has cozied up to business and industry at the expense of protecting workers, which is supposed to be her job. That's why the Democratic nominee needs to be a strong leader – and why this orphaned summer run-off is among the most important decisions state voters will face this election year.

Voters will choose between the top two vote-getters in the primary.

John Brooks, 71, is a former labor commissioner who served for 17 years until he was ousted by voters in 1992. He had a good record in that position, yet his department's policies came under scrutiny after the state's worst industrial accident – a chicken plant fire in Hamlet that killed 26. He has explained his department's record openly. He also worked for legislative reforms that, if they had passed, would have strengthened fire inspection codes.

Mary Fant Donnan, 51, a program officer for the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, served as director of research and policy for the Department of Labor under former Commissioner Harry Payne, the most capable labor commissioner that state has had.

We recommend the nomination of Mary Fant Donnan. She's smart, capable and well prepared to enact the reforms the department needs.

Ms. Donnan accurately notes that the quality of data about workplace risks and injuries must be more reliable, and that decisions about how to use department resources and apportion time must be based on precise and timely information.

Other priorities: stronger enforcement of worker safety rules; making the department more consumer-oriented; preventive education programs for employers.

Ms. Donnan says she would work to resurrect the state's ergonomics standards, requiring employers to address hazards likely to cause repetitive motion injuries. That's a critical need in a state where large-scale poultry and pork processing put tens of thousands of workers at risk for crippling injuries.

Voters should also consider her demeanor, which is measured and precise. She brings a big-picture view that would be key in shaping department policy.

Why the urgency for change? The current secretary has let workers down. The interests of business and industry carry more weight in policies than the interest of workers. That's unacceptable.

An Observer investigation into poultry processing in the Carolinas uncovered how lax oversight and loopholes in rules have allowed a dangerous industry to exploit workers and underreport crippling injuries. Her department's appalling record did not bother Ms. Berry. “We're going to keep doing what we're doing.” she said.

That perspective has to change, and change begins with choosing a strong Democratic nominee: Mary Fant Donnan.