AFL-CIO, Wary of Koch Money, Presses Tribune to Shelve Newspaper Sale

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NEW YORK (TheStreet) - Brandon Rees, who helps oversee the AFL-CIO's pension fund investments, is trying to convince Tribune to shelve any sale of its eight daily newspapers, which include The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune.

Rees' lobbying was prompted by David and Charles Koch, the Tea Party-funding multi-billionaire owners of the oil and chemicals conglomerate Koch Industries, who have said they may bid for the newspapers if Tribune decides to put them up for sale. Tribune, which could owe as much as $225 million in back taxes, needs the cash.

Rees, the acting director of the AFL's Office of Investment, is realistic about the situation. If Tribune wants to sell and the Koch brothers want to buy, there are few humans on the planet capable of outbidding them. Each of the Koch brothers has a personal fortune totaling $43 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, while Koch Industries generates $115 billion in annual sales. The brothers are the sixth and seventh wealthiest people in the world.

The Kochs have also been among the country's largest funders of groups that seek to undercut public pension fund benefits and curtail collective bargaining by municipal unions. Labor unions, as well as groups urging steps to combat global warming, another Koch foe, are loath to see these dailies become a unit of one of the world's largest fossil fuel providers.

Regardless of the overall decline in circulation, the papers remain major institutions in their home regions. They include the largest dailies in Illinois, California, Maryland (The Baltimore Sun) and Connecticut (Hartford Courant) as well as two in the politically-charged state of Florida (Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale), and also the national Spanish-language daily Hoy.

Ironically, the sale could be an immediate gain for some of the union federation's members. That's because billions of dollars in members' pension fund monies are managed by L.A.-based Oaktree Capital Management, the world's largest distressed debt investor, which owns a 23% stake in Tribune, making it the media company's largest shareholder.

Rees argues that selling now, even at a profit, would shortchange union members. Tribune's newspapers, which exited a messy and debilitating four-year bankruptcy in December, are beginning to show improvement as Oaktree President Bruce Karsh, who doubles as Tribune's chairman, said in a letter last month to national and California labor leaders. Tribune's "publishing assets are performing ahead of plan thus far this year" said Karsh, adding that a sale is only one option the company is considering.