Campaign Website: Mazie Ferguson for Labor Comissioner
Phone number: (803) 316-1298
Years lived in state: I have been a resident of North Carolina July, 1989 through the present. Took short Sabbaticals in that period.
A. What do you see as the most important issues facing the Department of Labor and working people in North Carolina?
1) The transition from industrial to technology has been difficult for the working people of North Carolina and poses a personnel dilemma for corporate owners, management, and worker. This is the most important issue facing the Department of Labor and working people in North Carolina?
2) For owners a major dilemma is: During periods of slump and recession how much should profit be reduced to give investors a meaningful return and to fairly remunerate workers. I see the problem as follows: For management the questions are how to keep labor/workers motivated during times of economic sluggishness and who should bear the burden of economic downswing —- investors, management, workers, all equally? The latter would do much to maintain morale of “we’re in this together”.
3) The third important issues facing the Department of Labor and working people in North Carolina is the erroneous placement of federal Department of Labor funds to train workers for new technology in the North Carolina Department of Commerce. That placement targets developing white color workers rather than the laborers left behind due to the technological revolution. Without more information, I would favor returning US Labor Department funds to the Commission of Labor as the proper place for such appropriations. A contented Labor force will create top quality products with fewer defects and accidents.
B. If elected, what are our top three priorities in addressing those issues?
1) To work for the repeal of Right to Work Laws. Places where they exist are not economically better off than places where they do not exist. The purposes of such law were to punish Unions for intervening in management total control of the work environment. I support repealing of these laws until business, technology, and industry provide a fair and equitable work environment for all workers. I would support such action and would begin discussion of support action to repeal the Right to Work Law as economic impediments to well managed labor environment.
2) I would strongly lobby for return of US Department of Labor funds to the oversight of the North Carolina Commission of Labor to be used to support the training of present employees’ technology productivity. The foresee ability of these workers being laid off without redress creates a priority in that arena. I would work for a consensus to study using directed training in technology opportunities to determine if it could mitigate the drain on family income being created by workers losing jobs to technology. If indicated by the study I would like to make on the job training a tool of management for the transition of workers to become the new technocrats in the labor force. I would support such
Endeavors generated from sound investigation of this challenge.
C. If elected, what are your top three priorities in addressing those issues?
1) A principle of jurisprudence is that the guts of humanity drive the impetus
for change. If elected my top three priorities, in addressing the issues
identified above, would be consensus building through convening owners,
managers, and workers (Note, I make no distinction between unionized
workers and non-unionized workers). All get benefit and detriment from
great production. I would initially convene a conference of management
and workers faced with losing jobs to technology. In the conference I would
offer, through skilled facilitators, an opportunity for both to hear the
suggestions as to how they can support those who could, unless
technologically retrained, be displaced. Secondly, I would convene
academics who are dealing with this loss of family income due to
technology. Finally, I would convene top high school seniors and train them
on the reality of the need for technological training in the new work place.
This initial step could set the tone for getting a realistic handle on the
D. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective on the issues you've identified? Please be as specific as possible in relating past accomplishments to current goals.
In 1968 I became a member of the Spartanburg, SC Planning Staff for
Model Cities. As lead staffer, I focused with developing the multi-million dollar Model Cities plan. Job opportunity and Economic Development were two of the parts of the plan on which I focused. The plan created over 300 jobs, the hiring priority for which was to be the training and development of the job readiness for 19,000+ residents of the model neighborhood. I was terminated after insisting that residents of the model neighborhood have priority status (as the CFR required) in obtaining the jobs and training offered by the program. HUD investigated my termination and I was rehired to work on behalf of the predominantly low income residents of the Model neighborhood. June 1971, I was arrested and jailed for two weeks for taking over a school district office with 30 students (all arrested too.) Fair integration was the issue. Through the vehicles of several federal programs, residents of the neighborhood have become attorneys, educators, elected officials—productive workers and citizens.
In 1975 I became Director of Welfare Advocacy for the South Carolina Council for Human Rights. In that capacity, I worked with social workers and their advocates for the fair working conditions for social workers and assistant social workers (those without college training). As advocate and observer of welfare, food stamp, and disability workers (non degreed), I had benefit of watching these workers grow in professionalism and expertise. It was gratifying to note how many of these workers bloomed into excellent public servants. I also worked as Executive Assistant to the 13 member South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus. I had an “all Access Pass” to the governor’s office and the General Assembly. In that environment I learned the concept of compromise for the good of the order. My Caucus Chairman became the Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court.
A final part of my preparation for Commissioner of Labor has been my years with Palmetto Legal services where I began as a volunteer. (Law School August 1975, admitted to the SC Bar November, 1978). I worked as a law clerk, staff attorney, managing attorney, and finally, Executive Director of the 16 county agency with a staff of 78 (including 25 attorneys). In the cities were we had fully stocked offices my board and I permitted members of the local bar associations access to our library, the most equipped library in those counties. Together the local bars associations and my agency brought justice to the working poor and disadvantaged citizens in the 16 counties we covered. WE only did civil work.
When I took supervision of the agency it was in defunding status. I worked with my staff, the state attorney general, the bar association, and the Legal Services Corporation to bring the agency out of defunding status. Our auditor who had declared an inability to give an opinion on the agency’s accounts stated it would take three to five years to being the agency out of default. One year later, the auditors gave an unqualified opinion on the fiscal health of the agency.)
Working as Plaintiff counsel was distinctly different from working defense counsel. I moved to North Carolina in 1989. In February 1993, I became Assistant Legal Counsel, and worked in tandem with the University Attorney at North Carolina A&T State University. University Attorneys work under the office of the North Carolina State Attorney General (Mike Easley at that time) My assignment was to defend the University against EEOC complaints. I believe the current Attorney General was a staff attorney in Mr. Easley’s office at that time. I wrote many briefs. The university never lost an EEOC complaint in the four and half years I worked there.
3. The number of workplace fatalities peaked in 2014 at 45, and in 2015 there were 41 workplace fatalities, a large increase from the 23 workplace fatalities reported in 2013. If elected, what will you do to bring down the number of workplace deaths, injuries, and illnesses?
a) An investigation into cause can usually dictate where the cure to a problem lies. What negligence was found to have led to these fatalities? Once negligence is found, the next inquiry should be “Is the negligence systemic or the result of isolated human error (failure to inspect equipment) or product liability. My final inquiry would be into how to prevent future incidences of negligence (if found) which leads to injury. That is where I would begin. An old adage says “when a dead fish floats on top of a lake, there is probably something wrong with the fish. When a whole lot of dead fish are found floating on top of the lake there is something wrong with the water. I would begin there.
4. In a sweeping investigation last year, The News & Observer found that 1,521 North Carolina workers were owed $2.1 million, and Department of Labor investigators failed to collect $1 million from companies and businesses owed to 617 workers. How will you ensure that workers are compensated when their employers fail to pay them?
The Commission on Labor needs to protect its integrity with regard to enforcing fair pay laws for workers. If not presently within its jurisdiction, the Commission needs to have power to enforce findings against management through the NC Council of State, a member of which is the NC Attorney General. Workers need to KNOW that the Commission of Labor is a defender of worker justice. Worker claims about not being paid, when validated by the Commission on Labor, should be summarily vindicated. In the cycle of Owners, Management and workers, the workers are the least likely to be able to afford litigation to enforce their rights. The Labor Commissioner should step in to provide needed support. The Commission and/or the Council of State should bring suit on behalf of the workers wrongfully denied their pay. At first blush several state and federal causes of action might be raised. Why hasn’t the NC Council of State, Attorney General, or Labor Commissioner brought actions under the NC Labor Laws and/or the federal labor Laws around due process of law, common law fraud, and others causes of Action There is no reason the elevators of North Carolina should be subject to greater scrutiny that these who supervise the workers of North Carolina! Better working conditions that the workers of North Carolina, come to mind (at first blush). Two or three lawsuits or a class action brought by the Commissioner of Labor could possibly end this travesty.
5. The same investigation exposed an increasing practice of payroll fraud in North Carolina by which workers are misclassified so that employers don’t have to pay payroll taxes on their behalf. It’s estimated that this practice puts honest employers at a 20 percent disadvantage. If you are elected, what measures will you take to crack down on this practice of misclassifying workers?
Here is an issue that raises a duty on the part of the NC Commissioner of Labor to take to the council of state and request a federal lawsuit under state and federal laws suing the employers for tax fraud and for subjecting workers to federal fraud claims. The commissioner should have requested that the council of state instruct the attorney general to bring an action on behalf of the workers of NC asking for treble damages for every violation found. Worker should not have to pay for this litigation, the offending employers. The state of North Carolina by its nonfeasance in the arena needs to be held to scrutiny in these cases.
6. By state law, the labor commissioner is required to meet with a State Advisory Council on Occupational Safety and Health that includes labor advocates and other worker-safety specialists. Is it important that the labor commissioner complies with this law? Should there be any penalty for not doing so?
My answers to both of these questions are a resounding “Yes”! The labor commissioner should comply with the law for the health and safety of the workers in North Carolina are under her jurisdiction. A cardinal principal of jurisprudence is this: Rules that are not enforced do not exist.
Do you agree with General Assembly’s decision to cut unemployment insurance?
I do not agree with the General Assembly’s decision to cut unemployment insurance.
b) How has this affected working people and families in North Carolina?
The minimum wage in North Carolina is below a living wage; but many benefits for working families are connected to the minimum wage for eligibility purpose. The result is that hard working families are struggling to live on $15/hour (total of two incomes) or do without essentials like proper diets, school supplies, etc. Are the available work training and retraining opportunities adequate and affordable? No worker training often involves after work hours, transportation to the training sites, and some funds for lunch, snacks, proper wardrobe.
4) If these issues haven't been addressed above, would you please comment on?
a. Jobs: Assess North Carolina’s efforts in creating jobs and decreasing unemployment for the past four years.
My assessment is that North Carolina’s efforts in creating jobs and decreasing unemployment for the past four years has been poor.
Where have we had successes?
Retreading old efforts is not the best method of creating new vistas. More opportunity. There are horizons beyond. New opportunities, extended training and training income are needed to forge new and greater success.
Where can we do better? How? The best answers to this and other questions posed here lie in the minds and guts of the workers we now serve and will serve. They are our greatest resources for new and better avenues for greater success.
b. Workplace health: Evaluate the performance of state employers in adhering to OHSA and providing a safe workplace. Employers are inundating workers with technical information about OSHA but they provide little practical information. Are workers getting all the information they need? Workers are getting TMI and too little practical advice on when and where and why and how. Mandatory workshops facilitated by OSHA workers with opportunity for private sessions might help workers with absorbing information about work place health and safety, and about OSHA complaints. What changes would you make to the labor department's practices in this area? What policy changes would you advocate at the General Assembly?
c. Migrant and farm worker labor: Do you believe the state has adequate safeguards in place to ensure that migrants and farm workers are not exploited? No. What does farm worker justice mean to you, and what would you do to promote it? In the past I have provided an ear to farm workers as well as served as an advocate for them in court rooms. More support for legal matters is needed. More language barriers must be reduced and trust must be earned with farm workers.
6) Should public employees have the right to bargain collectively in North Carolina?
YES! I would introduce and support legislation to affirm collective bargaining; Workers are often intimidated (and terminated) when attempting to bargain with employers alone. There is strength in numbers. I have had the opportunity to negotiate on behalf of workers (K-Mart boycott October 1996). Sitting at the bargaining table with me were workers from the union the workers were trying to organize. Their requests were reasonable, but K-mart would not bargain with them initially. The collective can, and did, work as a unit for many.
7) Why or why not—and, if elected, what would you do to advocate for or against collective bargaining? Collective bargaining provides worker with the strength to raise issues of justice and fairness without getting terminated (a likely result I have suffered years ago) when individuals bargain alone.
8) Do you believe that the Department of Labor has been adequately funded in the last two budget cycles?
Adequacy of funding depends on the number of personnel needed to take care of the needs of workers. Based on the information the public has been told about the need within the Commission, I am unable to respond to this question. As the Commissioner of Labor, I will keep the working and elected public informed of the needs and resources in existence and needed.
Are the compliance division and the wage and hour bureau adequately staffed? What ratio of inspectors to workers is ideal? What more funding is needed from the General Assembly, if any, and what will you do to secure it?
Workers are voters and they vote for or against members of the NC Council of State. If the Commissioner of Labor has not requested sufficient funds to carry out the job of protecting North Carolina workers, the sufficiency of funding is not the issue. The Commissioner of Labor is the problem.
9) What’s your philosophy on campaign contributions? Will you accept donations from companies that you later will be charged with overseeing? No! Management and owners already have sufficient resources to buy elections through their individual limits, the limits imposed on their spouses, siblings, and children as well as their PAC through whom they collect funds. They do not need to support pro labor candidates like me. I do not desire the strings attached to contributions from any other than the general public in measured amounts.
If so, what will you do to make sure each business is treated equally?
I will investigate each complaint that comes before the commission and measure consequences equitably after hearing all evidence presented.