The AFL-CIO, dissatisfied with television's handling of labor issues and tired of what it sees as TV's "Archie Bunker" stereotype of the narrow-minded, bigoted and not-too-bright working man, is launching a 12-part TV series this month in an effort to improve labor's image.
Titled "America Works," the program is billed as "the TV series about people who won't give up," and it tries to dramatize in documentary fashion the key issues and problems faced by American workers in the 1980s and beyond.
The series, including a segment about Maryland workers' conflict with state government and also featuring the first TV commercial appearance by Washington Redskins star John Riggins, marks a major departure for the AFL-CIO. Spurred in part by a grassroots demand to tell labor's story on television, the AFL-CIO voted a dues increase at its 1981 national convention to help finance a $2-million-a-year entry into television production.
The series comes at a time when the 13.7-million-member AFL-CIO is recovering from the loss of more than a million members in the last year, and is attempting to reassert its influence as the 1984 election looms ahead.
"America Works" will air Sundays, starting at 8 p.m. July 24 on WDCA-TV, Channel 20. Eight of the half-hour shows, which cost about $50,000 each to produce, will be shown this summer, and four more will air early next year.
Thirty-six television stations, including outlets in 19 of the 20 largest markets, have agreed to carry the series, according to the Labor Institute of Public Affairs (LIPA), the newly created TV programming unit of the AFL-CIO.
In addition to production costs, LIPA paid the stations to get the half-hour slot, but paid at a reduced rate because LIPA also offered the local stations three minutes of the six available for selling advertising, according to Nick DeMartino, LIPA's associate director.
The AFL-CIO's TV unit has landed eight national advertising sponsors, including Pan American Airlines and seven national labor unions. DeMartino said the advertising revenue is expected to cover the payments to the 36 stations. The stations, in turn, are selling their three minutes to local sponsors, including unions.
WDCA program director Stephanie Campbell described the production yesterday as high quality and said the show has been "well-received" by local advertisers.
Each of the first eight shows opens with a documentary segment filmed in various parts of the country, sketching particular problems faced by labor. Those segments are followed by a discussion and debate about the key issue, moderated by Marie Torre, a producer and reporter at WCBS-TV in New York.
AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, who initiated the project, stressed that the shows must be more engaging than conventional public affairs shows, according AFL-CIO information director Murray Seeger, who heads LIPA.
"We think it's a documentary that is much more interesting than a talking-heads-type show," said Seeger. "We promised that we would not have a bunch of fat old guys sitting around talking."
Subjects of the shows include plant closings in Indiana and labor's drive to make businesses more responsive to community needs; unemployment in Milwaukee and the efforts of unions to aid the jobless; voter registration drives in Detroit to recruit the poor and unemployed; "right-to-know" legislation in New England, where organized labor seeks laws to require labeling of toxic chemicals; job retraining in Iowa, where labor and business together try to help dislocated workers find new jobs; a show on problems facing senior citizens, and an exploration of "reindustrialization."
To comply with television's "fairness doctrine" requiring equal time for opposing views, the AFL-CIO included a panelist on each show whose views are opposed to that of organized labor. The AFL-CIO also hired Henry Geller, former general counsel of the Federal Communications Commission, as a consultant to advise the federation on the FCC fairness requirement.
LIPA also produced three commercials for the shows, including one featuring Riggins, who has turned down numerous requests to appear on TV ads since he was named most valuable player in the 1983 Super Bowl.
Riggins, an active member of the National Football League Players Association, appears in a T-shirt in a football locker room on a 30-second ad stressing the importance of union membership. "I'm a union member," Riggins says in the ad, "And here's my union card. I wouldn't go to work without it."
The third show, airing Aug. 7 on WDCA, focuses on the efforts of women clerical employes at the University of Maryland who are trying to achieve "pay equity" by convincing the state that the skills and responsibilities of their work are undervalued, when compared to men's jobs.
The show profiles Lynda Clendenning, a university library aide who is president of Local 1072 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. In the segment, Clendenning meets with state Secretary of Personnel Theodore E. Thornton Sr. and tells him that her members are considering a "work stoppage" to protest the state's failure to address the issue of "comparable worth."
"My members are deeply disgusted, deeply frustrated" because their top pay is considerably less than men whose jobs require the same skill, or even less, Clendenning says on the show.
"Comparable worth" has become a key issue for many of the nation's 45 million working women, and unions in various states are seeking ways to remedy the estimated 20 percent gap between men's and women's pay for similar jobs, according to the AFL-CIO.
Clendenning, in an interview, said AFSCME has studied "sex-segregated" jobs and found that although women clerical workers may have more responsibility and education than men in blue-collar jobs, the women nonetheless earn less. In some Maryland counties, liquor store clerks, who are usually male, earn more than teachers, usually female, for starting pay, she said.