Unions fight Koch brothers' bid to buy the public square

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Union members are mobilizing against the potential sale of the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, and other print, electronic and online media assets held by Tribune Co., to billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, two of the most virulent anti-worker voices in the nation.

In May, California lawmakers and 10 public employee unions announced opposition to any sale of the Los Angeles Times and other Tribune Co. newspapers to the Koch brothers. In a letter to Bruce Karsh, chairman of the board of directors of Oaktree Capital Management, the largest shareholder in Tribune Co., the unions stressed that some Oaktree assets come from public pension funds and warned that a sale to the "anti-labor, anti-environment, anti-public education and anti-immigrant" Kochs "would be adverse to the retirement security of public employees whose pension funds you are responsible for managing and investing."

Many AFT members participate in public pension funds with Oaktree Capital holdings, and union trustees are among those who have raised objections, says Dan Pedrotty, co-director of the AFT's Workers' Benefits & Capital Strategies Center, which advises AFT trustees. "There is a clear and compelling need for pension funds to speak out," he says.

From Los Angeles to Baltimore, union workers, environmentalists, good-government advocates and others are mobilizing against the potential sale and making their voices heard. Last month, hundreds rallied outside the Los Angeles offices of Karsh, who is also chairman of the board of Tribune Co., to object to the potential sale.

"The Kochs have been at the forefront of trying to destroy public employee unions and collective bargaining from Wisconsin to California," says Maria Elena Durazo, leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. "I guarantee that hardworking police officers, firefighters and teachers will not like Oaktree reaping the benefits of managing their pension money while at the same time doing business with the Koch brothers."

A letter from California labor leaders to Karsh put it bluntly: For those with retirement savings invested in public pension funds, selling Tribune's newspapers to the Koch brothers would be like "selling your car to a buyer who you know wants to buy the car so they can run you over."

The deal has also attracted national attention. A letter from AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka urged Karsh to be mindful of the broad impact of such a sale. "Given the Koch family's polarizing political views, it should not be surprising that a great deal of public concern has been expressed," Trumka wrote. "The possibility of such a transaction involving so many of America's leading media institutions raises unique concerns not just for your board but for our country."

The larger impact also was highlighted by Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi in a recent blog. The Tribune empire, he observed, encompasses eight major publications across the country—the Los Angeles Times, the Allentown Daily Call, the Chicago Tribune, the Orlando Sentinel, the Baltimore Sun, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the Hartford Courant, the Daily Press (Hampton Roads, Va.), and Hoy, America's second-largest Spanish-language paper. The potential sale of these properties "to lifetime denizens of a sub-moronic rightist echo chamber where everything from Social Security to Medicare to unemployment benefits to the EPA are urgent threats to national security, and even child labor laws are evidence of an overly intrusive government … would be a disaster of epic proportions," Taibbi writes. "One could argue that it would be on par with the Citizens United decision in its potential for causing popular opinion to be perverted and bent by concentrated financial interests." [AFL-CIO, Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Mike Rose]

June 5, 2013