Mary Fant Donnan, the Democratic nominee for N.C. labor commissioner, strongly criticized Republican incumbent Cherie Berry on Wednesday for Berry's recent decision not to increase safety inspections at poultry plants.
Donnan's disagreement, in an interview with the Observer, suggests the conditions of poultry workers could become a key issue as the candidates compete for votes this fall.
“We're at a point where the fox is guarding the hen house,” Donnan said.
“There are serious questions about whether we have an underreporting of workplace injuries,” she added.
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In response, Berry's campaign accused Donnan, who has endorsements from the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters, of promoting unnecessary intrusion into business.
“The clear difference is that Donnan is pushing a pro-union agenda for North Carolina, and that's something that Cherie Berry stands adamantly in opposition to,” said Berry's political adviser, Paul Shumaker.
Federal and state oversight of poultry plants has grown lax, the Observer reported in a series of stories beginning in February. Some plants had not been inspected in five years, and workers say those who are injured on the job are routinely ignored, threatened or fired.
Donnan's comments Wednesday came in her first interview about poultry workers' safety since she won the Democratic nomination last month. She said that if elected she would support regular inspections, more frequent checks on how businesses record injuries and, possibly, increased fines.
She said the General Assembly sent a “strong statement” this month when it approved four new safety inspectors for the Labor Department. Lawmakers wanted the positions to focus on poultry plants, but they didn't put those intentions in writing and the department said it would use the positions for all industries.
The number of inspections at N.C. poultry plants dropped from 25 in 1997 to six in 2007.
“It shocks me that in this particular sector we've seen that drop in inspections,” Donnan said, “because it's one of the sectors that has been most problematic.”
Shumaker defended Berry's cooperation with businesses, a philosophy that the poultry industry says it prefers.
“She's a commissioner of labor whose career is founded in business, not politics,” he said. “She also has a very clear record that if you're a bad operator, she's going to crack down on you.”