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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Farley, Winston offer contrast in labor commissioner race

North Carolina still elects a labor commissioner, whose main job is to ensure safe workplaces. That includes maintaining safe elevators that urban dwellers rely on to get to their office and apartments, which is why many associate the job with the commissioner’s photo on the inspection form.

Luke Farley
Luke Farley

This year’s November general election features two candidates with different visions. Current Commissioner Josh Dobson decided against seeking a second four-year term.

GOP candidate Luke Farley grew up in Onslow County, earned a bachelor’s degree from UNC Chapel Hill in 2007 and a law degree from Wake Forest University, and has been a lawyer in the Triangle for 13 years.

He’s focused mainly on construction industry issues, including defending clients in Occupational Safety and Health Administration cases. “Seeing the success and struggles of the construction industry got me interested in the labor commissioner position,” he says. “You’ve got to protect workers in a way that doesn’t bankrupt businesses.”

Braxton Winston
Braxton Winston

Democratic Party nominee Braxton Winston served on the Charlotte City Council for six years before stepping down last year. While born at Camp LeJeune, where his father served as a Marine, he grew up in New York City and graduated from Phillips Academy Andover in 2001 and Davidson College in 2006. He is a union stagehand and grip.

“The No. 1 responsibility of the job is to interpret and execute the state labor laws,” he says. “It’s important that people get paid fairly and workers aren’t retaliated against. And it’s an important public safety job with inspections of elevators, ski lifts, escalators and many other things, along with workplace death investigations.”

Farley’s victory in the GOP primary over N.C. Rep. Jon Hardister surprised many, including the NC Chamber. In a note published just after the election, the business group termed the Raleigh lawyer a “far-right candidate” whose main issues were banning vaccine requirements for employees and “making elevators great again.”

In March, the chamber added a note to its previous story calling Farley a “sharp contrast to his opponent. Our vision for North Carolina includes maintaining our competitive position as a right-to-work state and Mr. Farley shares that vision.”

Farley says the chamber didn’t take time to learn about his construction law experience and service on the Durham County Board of Elections, Wake County library board and N.C. Human Relations Commission.

He credits his victory to putting 20,000 miles on his truck while campaigning across the state, along with the endorsement of former Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, often called the “Elevator Queen” during her tenure from 2001-21.

Regarding vaccines, he says he heard stories on the campaign trail about workers who lost their jobs because they refused to take the jab during the pandemic. “It was a big deal for people, and I think we need to be protecting the rights of workers,” he says.

Union and Democratic Party officials repeatedly questioned Berry’s commitment to worker safety. But Farley contends the incidence of injuries per 100 workers declined by about 50% during her reign, with the N.C. average significantly lower than the national rate, he says. “She did a fantastic job,” he says.

Winston says he favors strengthening laws to protect workers and rebuilding the department’s staff, which suffers from vacancies. “The data shows North Carolina is the No. 1 state to start a business, but it is at the bottom of what it means to be a worker,” he says. That relates to wages, workplace safety, pay discrimination by gender and other issues, some of which are beyond the commissioner’s scope, he adds.

The two also disagree on the value of unions, which may become a topic in North Carolina after the unexpected unionization victory at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, factory. The UAW won 73% of the vote at the 5,500-employee plant, overcoming opposition from Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and pro-business groups. The vote has fired up the UAW, which hopes to win a similar vote at Mercedes-Benz factories in Vance and Woodstock, Alabama, in mid-May.

“I absolutely embrace unions,” Winston says. “I don’t know anyone in business who doesn’t do anything without a contract, and both sides are better off when there is a clearly defined bargaining process. Work gets one more efficiently, employees are safer and businesses get better.”

Farley says unions won’t help N.C. workers. “It’s not what our state wants. We are a right-to-work state, and no one should be forced to join a union,” he says.

North Carolina hasn’t elected a Democrat for labor commissioner since 1996. Winston hopes to break that streak by attracting more votes in typically Republican rural areas and energizing Mecklenburg County Democrats, who have  had low election turnouts in recent years.

Farley says his “common-sense conservatism” should help him win the election.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at dmildenberg@businessnc.com.

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