By Peter Vankevich
Coming off a win in the March 15 primary as the Democratic nominee for Commissioner of Labor, Charles Meeker was soon seen spending a few days on Ocracoke.
“I came here after I won my election for mayor in 2001 and have made it a tradition to come here for a little rest and relaxation after a political battle,” he said with a smile, noting he has spent time on the island every year since 1960. “I got in a jog and swim on the beach this morning.”
Meeker, 66, who garnered 56 percent of the vote against Mazie Ferguson, an attorney, Baptist minister and civil rights activist from Greensboro, faces off against Republican Cherie Berry, who has served in that office since 2000. She had no opponents in the primary.
He is a son of long-time resident the late Leonard Meeker, who was a former ambassador to Romania and legal adviser in the State Department, and his first wife, Christine Halliday, also deceased. His step-mother Beverly Meeker lives on Ocracoke.
The commissioner leads the N.C. Department of Labor, which is charged by state law with promoting the “health, safety and general well-being” of more than 4 million North Carolina workers.
It oversees workplace safety, inspecting elevators, mines and amusement rides, and administers the state’s wage-and-hour law.
As for the managing the department’s approximately 350 employees and $33 million budget, Meeker said his priority would be getting the department working effectively and efficiently.
“We need to improve worker safety through education and inspection to reduce the dozens of serious accidents and fatalities in our State every year,” he said. “A lot of people are surprised that records gathered since 2014 show that 128 North Carolinians have been killed in workplace accidents and dozens and dozens more seriously injured. That needs to be a focus in terms of training and education for employers and workers using equipment.”
Meeker does not believe his opponent has done enough for wage-and-hour controls regulated by the department, saying she is too soft on employers who have failed to pay employees according to the law. Employers who incorrectly classify workers as independent contractors gain an unfair competitive advantage over businesses that follow the law, he said.
“When an employer fails to pay workers what they are owed, the Department of Labor needs to take decisive steps, whether through negotiations or court proceedings,” he said and does not believe the current commissioner is doing that.
A graduate of Yale University (1972) and Columbia University Law School (1975), he served as mayor of Raleigh for 10 years, winning his first two-year term in 2001. After five terms, he did not seek re-election. He previously served for eight years as a member of the Raleigh City Council.
The Commissioner of Labor is a member of the Council of State, consisting of 10 elected officials who advise the governor.
Meeker sees this advisory role as a way to help preserve the environment in Eastern Carolina and offer opinions on other important state issues including education.
Berry, 69, is running for a fifth term as labor commissioner.
Prior to that she served in the North Carolina House of Representatives (District 45) from 1993 to 2000, where she chaired the Commerce Committee. She also owned LGM Ltd, in Catawba County, a business which produced spark plug wires for the automobile industry.
Berry has one of the most recognizable faces in the state. Since 2005, her picture has been on the inspection certificates of approximately 25,000 state-wide elevators. She is known as “The Elevator Queen,” a title her website says she readily embraces.
Meeker responded: “My view on that is that space should be used to honor workers such as teachers, firefighters, truck drivers who are making the state a better place, and not just to promote a career politician,” he said. “So, should I get elected, I’ll make a change on that picture in the elevator.”
A self-identified conservative, Berry in 2012 said North Carolina should abolish the minimum wage. She is an advocate of sustainable economic growth and against the special interests seeking redundant, job-killing regulations.
Berry believes that worker safety is her primary role and cites the decrease in cases of injury or illness for workers during every year of her tenure. The number now stands at 2.7 per 100 workers, the lowest in North Carolina’s history.
“I’m running for re-election because I want to continue that downward trend in injuries and illnesses of workers, both in the public sector and private sector,” said Berry.
In response to criticisms that the labor department is not doing enough, a charge leveled, among others, by the Raleigh News&Observer in a series of articles and editorials, she is unapologetic.
“I’ve been accused of being too business friendly, but that’s what it’s all about,” she recently told the North Star Journal. “I’d like to think we had a partnership with (businesses), and they saw us not so much as a regulatory agency that had an adversarial relationship with them, but more as their partners in trying to create safe and healthy work places.”
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