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Landmark 'Minnesota At Work' program makes transition to the Web

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Landmark 'Minnesota At Work' program makes transition to the Web

by John See

In 1984 a groundbreaking new television program appeared on local cable channels in the Twin Cities. Produced by the Labor Education Service in cooperation with the Minnesota AFL-CIO, "Minnesota Labor '84" made its debut on half-a-dozen channels on cable systems in the Twin Cities.

Over the next 26 years it became the longest running, regularly scheduled labor TV program in the country and a fixture on community access stations around Minnesota. Over the years, the producers of this unique program created hundreds of shows about working people and the labor movement in Minnesota.

The program, renamed "Minnesota at Work" in 1988, was both an observer and, on several occasions, an active participant in union events it covered. It was standard procedure for the crews to 'embed' themselves in the action to record events and get the best coverage. On several occasions programs prompted calls from lobbying groups, hotel owners, University of Minnesota officials and even the governor's office. And in a few situations, we believe "Minnesota at Work" was helpful with the outcome of some challenges.

Transition to new technology

Now, in the interest of continuing this advocacy as effectively as possible, "Minnesota at Work" has ended its run on cable TV and moved to the Web. This allows us more flexibility in choosing our topics and provides ways for us to produce with immediacy not possible on cable. Our programs can now be posted to the web within hours and are available for viewing 24 hours a day. We are embracing this opportunity and look forward to this next manifestation of our award-winning program.

Unique history

"Minnesota at Work" was one of many audio-visual initiatives of Professor Martin Duffy, who began using 35mm slides, audio recordings, and film in the 1970s. He produced two films that are still shown to classes and union members: Hubert Humphrey's "Last Words to Labor" in 1977, and "Labor's Turning Point," about the 1934 Minneapolis Truckers Strike, in 1982.

Duffy's vision of starting a TV program for working people became a reality in 1984. Video production equipment became portable and affordable, and funding was available to hire a videographer, John See. Notably, Minnesota AFL-CIO Presidents Emeritus Dave Roe, Dan Gustafson, and Bernard Brommer added their support to the project.

"The goal is a statewide telecommunications network reflecting a partnership between LES and the labor movement," the Minnesota AFL-CIO Cable Television Committee said in a report in 1984.

Ron Cohen, then the state federation's Director of Public Relations and a member of the committee, said recently, "The vision was for a topical program produced once or twice a month instead of once or twice a year a year."

In addition to underwriting the program, many officers and staff members lent their expertise as hosts and researchers including then Education Director Christine Matuzek-Rivas, former Communications Director Bill Moore, Brommer and Cohen, to name a few.

Said Moore, "I knew 'Minnesota at Work' mostly from the back room. When I was Communications Director for the Minnesota AFL-CIO in the 1990s, I'd work with Bernard Brommer, Bill Peterson and, later, Ray Waldron, researching program topics, preparing notes and developing questions for guests. Sometimes I'd accompany the officers to the studio and observe a production from the control room.

"It was always fascinating to watch John See or Randy Croce or Howard Kling working the control panel, calling out instructions to camera operators and the host, selecting from the available shots, assembling the show on the fly and bringing it in on time."

Whether it was in the studio or in the field, Labor Education Service staff also played crucial roles as producers, writers, hosts, camera operators, and grips. Many programs were generated by staff initiative; drawing on their daily contacts with the union members they worked with in classes and the community.

Workers tell their stories

"Minnesota at Work" provides a way for workers to tell their stories without the filter of mainstream media bias. Then, as now, labor's message was largely ignored or it was manipulated to promote a corporate point of view that gave short shrift to issues important to workers. As the Union Advocate newspaper said in August 1984, "All too often labor's spokespeople have tried diligently to present their side of the case for fair wages and working conditions only to see the television image of an isolated picket line incident nullify their efforts."

News coverage would always portray disputes as labor disputes- never management disputes, and refer to labor leaders as labor bosses. Rarely would there be a story about a union or union member doing good work in the community. While there were and are excellent labor newspapers in Minnesota and around the country, until "Minnesota at Work" there were no regularly scheduled labor television shows.

As President Emeritus Brommer said recently, "The "Minnesota at Work" program began with the objective of creating a new communications device that could be used to focus on the story of working people in our state. Over the years, the program has been used to share information and knowledge on a wide variety of subjects and public policy issues. The program was one of the first, if not the first, efforts by the labor movement in the United States to utilize the growing availability and influence of cable television to reach a significant number of people in the viewing audience."

Added Moore: "The shows were interesting too, of course, and informative. They offered viewers a window on working people's issues of the day and union actions to address them."

We could not have produced Minnesota At Work without the facilities, staff, and volunteers at cable access stations in Eden Prairie, Fridley, Minneapolis, and St. Paul. Once we got trained and certified, public access television provided an inexpensive way for us to tell our stories, giving us access to expensive cameras, editing equipment, studios and production vans with multiple cameras that encouraged high quality programs.

Just as important, we developed volunteer crews of union members and the general public. We were able to produce studio programs, go on location around the state, shoot documentaries, provide coverage for gatherings such as the Minnesota AFL-CIO Convention and meetings or rallies at union halls, and even do a few live call-in shows.

A great advancement in local program distribution happened when Metro Cable Channel 6 opened in 1987 as a central distribution center, making it possible to reach a potential audience of 600,000 cable subscribers. This also alleviated having to deliver taped programs to individual cable access community channels in the metro area. As part of its long-time support for volunteer public access programming, the Minnesota AFL-CIO was a primary force for creating MCN6.

The work goes on. Now "Minnesota at Work" is available on the Web. Our first Web-only segments feature Minnesotans speaking out about the Employee Free Choice Act.

We also have posted two programs that feature clips from the first 20 years of "Minnesota at Work." Give them a look. You'll get a kick out of some of the names and faces and events that shaped parts of the Minnesota labor movement landscape. You'll find drama, humor, sadness, celebrities (and politicians), music and travel. "Minnesota at Work" is privileged to have been there to tell worker's stories, and we hope to keep doing it for as long as there are stories to tell.

Like "Minnesota at Work," John See has made the transition from film to the Web, trading in heavy equipment for a pocket-sized Flip camcorder and computer keyboard. At the Labor Education Service, he helps unions understand and work with new technologies.

This Viewpoint can be found here Workday Minnesota.

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