Workers' groups endorse Donnan in labor runoff

Worker advocates have taken an interest in the race for labor commissioner.

With two-term Republican Cherie Berry up for re-election this fall, some of N.C.'s bigger employee advocacy groups have endorsed Democratic candidate Mary Fant Donnan in today's primary runoff as their best hope.

But her opponent, former commissioner John Brooks, says he would actually be a bigger friend to workers.

The position holds little sway over such traditional labor issues as N.C.'s longtime ban on government workers unionizing. But as a statewide elected post, some advocates see it as a bully pulpit Berry has left empty.

“We haven't really seen the labor department take proactive steps to protect workers and crack down on companies with more than just a slap on the wrist,” said MaryBe McMillan, secretary of the state chapter of the AFL-CIO.

That union endorsed Donnan, as did the N.C. Association of Educators, which represents state-employed teachers.

Donnan has not taken a stand on the state's ban on collective bargaining by government workers or the restrictions on union activities in private companies.

Instead she says she's more interested in mediating worker grievances, pushing industrywide workplace safety measures and improving apprenticeship programs.

Brooks, meantime, makes no bones about his support for organized labor.

As labor commissioner from 1977 to 1993, Brooks says he has a track record representing workers and investigating unsafe working conditions. He says he would support ending the ban on collective bargaining among government workers. “It saddens me that this is such an anti-union state,” he said.

Brooks says he would lobby to double the “miserably small” number of workplace inspectors checking N.C. employers for violations of federal and state standards.