Gulf Watch: Shrinking the Times-Pic and the Digital Divide, H2B Guestworker Struggles Continue and the Fate of RESTORE Act

It seems like the deeper we get into the 2012 Presidential election campaign, the less attention the media pays to Gulf Coast issues. Since most of the Gulf states are red (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas) the Obama campaign is mostly ignoring problems endemic to the Gulf. However, President Obama’s announcement that the nation would no longer deport children of immigrants certainly will have net positive impacts in the Gulf, especially in Alabama where the rabidly nativist HB 56 law is scaring immigrants out of the state in droves. Meanwhile, Republican candidate Mitt Romney has made no commitment to protect immigrants and has yet to mention anything significant about the Gulf Coast. There are three huge Gulf stories, though, that the nation should be paying attention to:

1. The Creative Destruction of the New Orleans Times-Picayune: The way the Times-Picayune newspaper owners just laid-off almost a third of their staff would probably make Mitt Romney and his Bain Capital colleagues proud. Since it was announced that the T-P would be re-scheduling their print daily distribution from seven days to three, while focusing more on digital content, and depleting their staff, New Orleans has been up in arms (the same thing is happening in Alabama where TP publisher Ricky Matthews also runs the Birmingham and Mobile dailies and will be taking the same cost-cutting measures.) The way dozens of journalists learned about their fate was from other media outlets, which is disgusting to say the least. The mass firings seem to hearken other disastrously handled New Orleans remakes, such as the razing of public housing and the non-renewal of the Orleans Parish public schools teachers union contract. Former TP columnist and current Treme TV show writer Lolis Elie wrote a moving appeal for preserving the daily TP print, and The Lens has produced plenty of appeals and commentary as well. What’s missing from the conversation, though, is an honest discussion about the lack of digital access for low-income communities in the city, which presumably would prevent them from benefitting from the online conversion of the newspaper. Most commentators have used the “digital divide” problem to argue for preservation of the print daily (not to mention, few people cared about the digital divide until it could be used conveniently to support appeals to save the TP). But hardly anyone has made an appeal for investing funds and resources into low-income communities that are on the losing end of the digital divide so that they have more access to high-speed broadband internet services. Since Bridge the Gulf started two years ago, as an online source for citizen journalism and Gulf resident storytelling, it has worked with Gulf Coast communities to build their technological and digital capacities. Just last week, Bridge the Gulf helped train staff at Women With a Vision on video storytelling and editing. With more resources, Bridge the Gulf could expand these trainings and help bring more Gulf residents and organizations into the digital fold. Whether newspapers run print dailies or not, all Americans will need to have a working digital media literacy for improving their economic and employment futures. Leaving this out of the discussion sounds too much like working to reinforce the digital divide rather than bridging it. 

2. H-2B Immigrant Guestworkers Aren’t Backing Down from Abuse Claims: Last week Mexican guestworkers from a Louisiana seafood processing plant staged a public action in front of Sam’s Club to draw attention to claims of labor exploitation and abuse. With the assistance of the National Guestworker’s Alliance, seven guestworkers called for Wal-Mart and the Department of Labor to investigate their worker abuse claims. Walmart announced they’d investigate, but a few days later concluded their investigation claiming they couldn’t substantiate any of the complaints. NGA rep Jacob Horowitz said that Walmart never contacted any of their workers. Meanwhile, the Department of Labor is still looking into it. The guestworkers, who are on strike right now, are gathered in New York right now making their case before and raising more awareness about the exploitation they say they’ve endured and witnessed in Louisiana. Bad enough that the media has chosen to ignore  the workers’ claims, choosing instead to defend business interests, but state legislators are running a full assault on guestworkers rights and protections. Rep. Shelby in Alabama and Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana have both signed onto legislation that would decimate prevailing wage policies for guestworkers. The future of labor for the nation rests in the kind of policy haggling taking place right now in the Gulf Coast. Watch this video to hear from the guestworkers themselves about their experiences laboring in Louisiana.

3. No Resting Place for the RESTORE Act -- The RESTORE Act is a pure political paradox. It is one of the few pieces of legislation in existence right now that enjoys true bipartisan support. But it hasn’t become law mostly because of partisan squabbling. We’ve come close to passing the RESTORE Act, but it won’t complete download because its life co-depends on other legislation that the dueling political parties can’t agree on. Right now, it’s a rider on the transportation bill, which has been strung along for months now and has no sign of resolution anytime soon. One of the main reasons for that is that House Republicans want to add in funds for the Keystone XL pipeline, even though Democrats in both chambers oppose it. It’s left Gulf Coast folks in a thorny position: Advocate for a bad transportation bill that includes passage of RESTORE but also authorizes the Keystone XL dirty tar sands project, or don’t support the transportation bill because of the nasty Keystone XL tie-in, but lose RESTORE funds. Some legislators are trying to dis-attach RESTORE from the transportation bill, but right now there is no pending legislation that isn’t caught in a political leg-lock -- it would make sense to add it to Obama’s jobs bill, but that bill is going nowhere.