Opinion

Why Cherie Berry needs to go in November

Twice, the people of North Carolina have elected Cherie Berry state labor commissioner, an office that's charged with being the watchdog for worker safety. You'd never guess that's the job Ms. Berry holds by her record or by listening to how she describes the duties of her office.

This week Ms. Berry, a Republican, told agribusiness executives one of her main goals was “helping you stay profitable and helping you sustain your business for our quality of life in North Carolina.”

Helping businesses stay profitable? The state labor commissioner? There should be no doubt why voters need to replace Ms. Berry in the Nov. 4 election with Democratic challenger Mary Fant Donnan.

Reason No. 1: She does not understand her job. Reason No. 2: She has not done her job.

A 22-month Observer investigation into poultry processing in the Carolinas found that lax regulations and weak oversight have made it easy for a dangerous industry to exploit illegal workers, underreport injuries and get around a regulatory system that essentially lets companies police themselves.

Reporters uncovered deplorable conditions in plants, primarily those run by House of Raeford. They found, among other things, that the company masked the extent of injuries and broke state law by failing to record injuries on state logs. They also found that state inspections and fines at poultry plans are at record lows.

You'd think someone elected to look out for the state's workers would be outraged and pledge swift action. But Ms. Berry said the department would “keep doing what we're doing because it's working.” She even ignored additional money the state legislature provided to shore up the department's unsatisfactory record on poultry companies.

The problem is easy to spot in her recent pep talk to agribusiness executives. “We're no longer adversaries,” she told them. “We're partners.”

Here's what that means: Under her leadership, rules and policies at the state labor department have tilted toward business, not worker safety. Her administration has, in fact, stressed “partnerships” with companies. It has sought to mediate when rules were broken instead of enacting fines and stepping up inspections.

There's nothing wrong with working with businesses to improve working conditions. But failing to enforce safety laws means workers have no one looking out for their interests. It also means companies flouting the rules gain unfair advantage over companies working hard to obey them. That's wrong.

Voters have an opportunity to change the department's direction in November. Ms. Donnan is a program officer for the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. She 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. Ms. Donnan is well-prepared to enact the reforms the department needs – and provide the oversight Ms. Berry has ignored.

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