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TV REVIEW : 'Workforce' Accents Cooperation

May 19, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Granted, the U.S. economic recovery needn't be as exciting as the Denver Nuggets and the Utah Jazz battling in double overtime, but does it have to be as boring as the KCET-produced report "The New American Workforce"?

The symptoms, the disease and the cures to what ails American business and labor have long been well-documented on public television, with current Labor Secretary Robert Reich's "Made in America?" and reporter Hedrick Smith's "Challenge to America" leading the way. "The New American Workforce" is pretty old stuff, lagging as far behind TV reporting trends as old-style U.S. corporations have lagged behind their international competitors.

The history lesson recounted here is a familiar one. Once the dominant world economic power, the United States and its business culture ultimately rested on its laurels. The defeated nations of World War II came back strong, and, while Japan and Germany began grabbing market shares of costlier production in the '70s and '80s, low-wage work began to go south to Mexico.

*

Producer Robert Dean's and Lew Allison's concerns, at least, look past what went wrong and toward current examples of how American management and labor are inching toward new cooperation. The mantra, spoken by host Lindsay Wagner with none of the verve of her car ads, is that cooperation and shared workplace power breed productivity.

The rest of the report reels out various examples of the philosophy, including two Los Angeles-based ventures, El Rey Sausage Co. and Toyota's Automotive Training Center. At Whirlpool Corp.'s main Fort Smith, Ark., plant, the recession forced standard union-management war councils to evolve into work committees. At Intel Corp., the world's largest semiconductor manufacturer keeps pummeling the competition with constant retraining and a perfectionist work ethic.

We can only imagine, though, what KCET's often creative "Life & Times" production unit might have done portraying the local Toyota project, which is inspired by the German apprentice system--that nation's key for a productive, high-skill work force. We're served up a feel-good sensibility rather than an honest, hard look at how the program is actually changing the lives of formerly aimless kids and gang members. If a new work ethic is truly taking hold, show us, don't tell us.

* "The New American Workforce" airs at 8 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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