N.C. Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry told a group of agribusiness executives Monday that she's proud of her cooperation with employers on workplace safety, despite an Observer investigation that raised questions about oversight by her office.
“We're no longer adversaries. We're partners,” she said at the annual banquet of the N.C. Agribusiness Council.
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Berry, labor commissioner since 2000, told the executives that one of her main goals is “helping you stay profitable and helping you sustain your business for our quality of life in North Carolina.” As a result, she said, her office has focused more on safety education than on inspections and fines.
A series of Observer stories this year found that, under that philosophy, some poultry processing plants had not been inspected in five years. Poultry workers across the Carolinas said those hurt on the job are routinely ignored, threatened or fired.
Berry has dismissed those findings, pointing to low injury rates even as some experts say that injuries are being underreported.
In May, Gov. Mike Easley proposed shifting some authority over poultry plant inspection to another state agency. State lawmakers rejected the plan, in part at Berry's urging.
“I stood firm and took the heat from The Charlotte Observer,” Berry said Monday. “You have enough challenges. You don't need the state piling on.”
Berry, a Republican, is running for re-election this year against Democrat Mary Fant Donnan.
Speaking separately to the same banquet Monday, Donnan said that failing to enforce safety laws puts the “good players” in an industry at a competitive disadvantage with those who exploit workers. “Level the playing field, so it's competitive for everyone who's working there,” she said.
Berry criticized Donnan for receiving endorsements from labor unions.