North Carolina's Council of State comprises the 10 executive branch offices elected statewide. The governor and lieutenant governor are the most visible races, yet the remaining eight so-called down-ballot offices perform vital roles for citizens, from managing state employees' retirement funds to protecting workers. All these races deserve careful attention from voters, yet the race for labor commissioner this year carries special urgency.
If you work for a living, the race for labor commissioner is an important vote. A change of leadership is urgently needed, and voters have an opportunity to make that change Nov. 4.
Incumbent Cherie Berry, a Republican, is being challenged by Democrat Mary Fant Donnan, a program director for the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and former director of research and policy for the Department of Labor.
The labor commissioner office is bound by state law to be a watchdog for workers. Berry's record over eight years shows she is unsuited for that role. Under her leadership, the labor department has been tilted toward business and industry, not worker safety. She has ignored evidence that poultry companies exploit workers and get around rules that require them to report injuries. Under her watch, inspections of that industry have dropped and fines have decreased.
In addition, Berry has sloughed off a law giving workers the right to recover their jobs and losses when wrongly fired. The Observer also reported that nearly half her campaign contributions came from companies the department has inspected, and their fines for safety violations have usually been reduced, and by more than those of non-contributors.
That record is unacceptable, and voters have a capable alternative in Donnan.
Donnan served under former Commissioner Harry Payne, the most active labor commissioner the state has had. She is well prepared to enact the reforms needed in the department. She has pledged to strengthen enforcement of worker safety rules, make the department more consumer friendly and work to resurrect the state's ergonomics standards, which would require employers to address hazards likely to cause repetitive motion injuries. That's especially important for workers with injury-prone poultry jobs.
Another asset: Donnan is smart, measured and precise in her thinking. She brings a big-picture view that would be beneficial in shaping the department's policy for North Carolina.
Cherie Berry has not done the job on worker safety. A change is essential.
We enthusiastically recommend Mary Fant Donnan for labor commissioner.