I cannot even begin to tell you how much I hate North Carolina’s Elevator Queen.
I do not mean that I hate Cherie Berry as a person. I hate and despise the ironic cult following that has cropped up around her due to her position of being North Carolina Commissioner of Labor, as the Department of Labor that she runs has the responsibility of inspecting the safety of all elevators in the state. Berry, whose first name is pronounced like the French word, “chérie,” and not the fortified wine originally from southern Spain, “sherry,” has her face and name placed in every elevator in the state because of this, as each elevator must bear a certificate of inspection.
This has, for some unfathomable and unholy reason, resulted in an ironic fan club/merch line created independently of her by mostly younger and mostly white people concentrated in Raleigh and Charlotte. Everything from songs about her to shirts bearing her likeness with the legend, “Cherie Berry Lifts Me Up,” underneath are just some of the manifestations of this micro-trend, with the parody account of @ElevatorQueen being probably the most public and lingering instance of it.
However, North Carolina’s Labor Commissioner has more duties than just inspecting elevators. That office is responsible for prosecuting wage theft and ensuring the health and safety of North Carolina’s workers, and in those obligations Berry’s record is far less sterling.
Speaking to the Greensboro News and Record in September of last year about this nonsense, Berry laid out what got her to run for office to begin with. And with campaign donors like RJ Reynolds (a tobacco company that refuses to recognize the Farm Labor Organizing Committee as the voice of the migrant farm workers who grow its tobacco) and Art Pope in 2008, and Smithfield Foods in 2004 while it was trying to grind the United Food and Commercial Workers into dust at the company’s main packing plant in Tar Heel, her philosophy of governance will not surprise you:
“We realized how many rules and regulations and paperwork we had to do, and I complained about it to him,” she says. “There was just more and more of that, so I kept complaining, and my husband finally said to me, ‘Quit your bitchin’ and run for office if you want to change it.’ So I did.”
(Side note: a year before Berry entered politics as a member of North Carolina’s State House in 1992, a horrendous fire at the Imperial Food Products poultry processing plant in Hamlet, NC killed 25 workers and injured 55. It is the worst industrial disaster in North Carolina’s history, and resulted in the owner receiving a twenty-five year sentence for twenty-five counts of involuntary manslaughter in a plea deal that he served four years of the sentence. The failures of the NC Department of Labor in advance of the fire were so profound that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) essentially took the NC OSH program into receivership, marking the first takeover of a state occupational health and safety regulator in OSHA’s history.)
Berry has lived up to this philosophy all seventeen years she has been in office. She has been unforgivably lax about fighting wage theft in North Carolina, allowing the bosses to rob workers of their hard-earned wages by refusing to prosecute these thieves.
The worst part of Berry’s Department of Labor is the abrogation of its responsibility to ensure safe workplaces for all those working in the state. Worse, donors to Berry’s re-election campaigns find their regulatory fines from the Department of Labor significantly milder when they are brought to account for endangering the workers who have the misfortune of working for such scum:
More than 20 employees of McGee Brothers, a large masonry business based in Monroe, made contributions to Berry last year as part of a company-sponsored fundraiser. The firm’s employees and spouses have contributed more than $9,300 to Berry’s re-election campaigns.
The Labor Department, which is charged with overseeing the safety of workers, has cited McGee Brothers for more than 40 OSHA violations since Berry took office in 2001. Inspectors proposed total fines of about $32,000, but the penalties were cut to $4,150.
R.N. Rouse and Co. Since 2005, five managers and executives of this construction company have given $2,750 to Berry’s campaign. All but one of the contributions came on the same day in 2007, about the time the firm hosted a reception for Berry. N.C. OSHA has cited Rouse for nine serious violations since Berry entered office, and the total proposed fines – $4,100 – were cut to $613.
House of Raeford. Executives and managers of this N.C. poultry company have contributed at least $15,000 to Berry’s campaigns. Since 2001, N.C. OSHA has cited the firm for more than 60 serious violations – some following chemical accidents that killed one worker and sent 17 others to the hospital. Inspectors proposed about $117,000 in fines, but the fines were reduced to $26,500.
Pike Electric. Employees, along with the company’s political action committee, gave about $60,000 to Berry’s campaign in 2000 – more than a third of her total donations that year. At the time, a significant OSHA case was pending against Pike. That case was settled in 2002, and the proposed fines – totaling $56,700 – were cut to $3,200.
In all, Pike employees have contributed nearly $80,000 to Berry’s three campaigns. Other OSHA fines proposed since 2001 – totaling about $25,000 – have been cut to $6,300.
This lax oversight and flagrant pay-to-play has consequences. In Pike Electric’s case, one of its employees was killed in 2001 by the company’s failure to remove dead trees that posed a safety hazard as he used an excavator, per Department of Labor inspectors. The inspectors proposed a fine of $18,900. It was cut to $6,300.
His name was Telesforo Lomeli, and he was 45 when he was killed by his employer’s unsafe jobsite. And he is very far from alone in North Carolina.
I attended the observation of Workers’ Memorial Day in Raleigh last Friday with union brothers and sisters and the families of those killed while at work. In 2016, there were 174 ‘workplace fatalities’ in North Carolina. Some of these fatalities were freak accidents that could not have been prevented, others were not. Rachel Rosoff, a senior at Enloe High School who was working as a lifeguard in September 2016, was electrocuted and drowned. She was 17 when she was killed by her employer, Aqua Management Group, through its failure to keep the pool she worked safe.
There are another 173 families like Rosoff’s in North Carolina, with a hole ripped into the fabric of their lives from such a loss. During the event, North Carolina AFL-CIO President MaryBe McMillan observed that while every elevator in the state must be inspected once a year, it would take ninety-six years for the NC Department of Labor to inspect every workplace in North Carolina for safety at current staffing levels.
As we do every year at Workers’ Memorial Day here in North Carolina, we rang a bell in commemoration for Rachel Rosoff and every other worker killed on the job in 2016. Afterwards, we did another thing we do every year, which is march over to the Department of Labor’s headquarters on Edenton Street and hand deliver an invitation to the Labor Commissioner to attend next year.
Berry has yet to take us up on such an invitation in all the years this day has been commemorated here in North Carolina, and I doubt she ever will, as she said herself in the News and Record last September that she’s just fine with her legacy being elevators and not saving workers’ lives:
Berry, the first woman to hold the position of labor commissioner, oversees a department tasked with ensuring the safety and well-being of roughly 4 million workers. But elevators are likely to be her lasting legacy, and that’s more than OK with her.
“If that’s what people remember about me, that’s just perfect,” she says.
It would be one thing if Cherie Berry was a minor functionary who had no responsibility over issues that fundamentally shape the lives of those who work in this state. I might find the ironic cult of personality that has cropped up around her (and that she has opportunistically cultivated) annoying in such a case, but there wouldn’t be any real harm in it compared to other forms of celebrity worship.
The problem is that Berry has pursued an administrative course that has a body count attached to it, and this kind of twee horseshit serves to cover for Berry’s refusal to fight for Rachel Rosoff, Telesforo Lomeli, or the other 2,354 other workers killed on the job in North Carolina since Berry took office in 2001 to 2016, the last year that figures were available by state. Further, Berry’s policies deliberately undercount workplace fatalities. What’s more, the workplace fatalities figures do not include deaths caused by failures in occupational safety and industrial hygiene that occur long after people stop working, like silicosis or mesothelioma.
This is why I hate the Elevator Queen. For the sake of North Carolina’s working class, she can’t get stripped of her crown soon enough.