Friday, June 28, 2013

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

BY Leon Lazaroff

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

David and Charles Koch
David and Charles Koch
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.

Nonetheless, Rees is pressing Tribune to hold off on an auction for its newspapers, valued in the company's 2012 reorganization plan at $623 million. 

Oaktree Logo
"Oaktree as short-term investors may want this transaction now whereas their clients, the pension plans, are longer-term investors who may benefit from continued ownership of these newspapers as they continue to adjust to market realities," Rees said in an interview on Thursday. "If the Kochs, who are certainly smart investors, were to be buyers here, that demonstrates there's still value to these media properties. From our standpoint, there may be greater profits to be had later on." 

The Newspaper Guild-CWA
At a gathering Wednesday in Washington hosted by the Communications Workers of America-Newspaper Guild, union activists and critics of media consolidation stopped short of painting a sky-is-falling picture were the Koch brothers to buy Tribune's newspapers. Guild President Bernie Lunzer said he's refraining from Koch bashing, adding that there may even be opportunities to organize workers at these newspapers. (Currently, the Baltimore Sun is the only Tribune newspaper represented by the Guild.)

TNG-CWA on Media Consolidation

Thursday, June 13, 2013

White-collar Workers Turning to Labor Unions

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

"There is a great deal of unrest among professional workers, who don't have a history of union joining behavior," one expert says. "They represent the frontiers of unionization in America."

NEW YORK — The next wave of union protesters isn't blue collar. It's lawyers, paralegals, secretaries, helicopter pilots, judges, insurance agents and podiatrists.

Some experts see professional workers as the future of the labor movement…
Some experts see professional workers as the future of the labor movement…                    (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )  
These white-collar workers are not exactly the picture of the labor movement, but they are becoming a more essential part of it as they turn to unions for help in a tough economy as bosses try to squeeze out more profits

"Employers have been downsizing, asking employees to take on larger roles, making them work more hours," said Nicole Korkolis, spokeswoman for the Office and Professional Employees International Union. "People are feeling like they need an advocate."

Members of UAW Local 2320 in New York, nearly half of whom are lawyers, voted to strike Wednesday, after their employer, Legal Services NYC, pushed for cuts to benefits in a recent contract negotiation.Many of them had never been involved with labor unions before, but they said decisions by management led them to take the drastic action of voting to strike.

"They're pushing a lot of changes that are making it a less pleasant place to work," said Logan Schiff, 30, who recently left his job in the corporate world to become a lawyer helping clients facing foreclosures on Staten Island.

Like many in his union, he puts the blame on his employer's board members, who he says are unwilling to compromise. "These are corporate lawyers, making millions of dollars a year, dictating the policies of management," he said.

Some experts see professional workers such as Schiff as the future of the labor movement in a job market where white-collar employment is increasing and the manufacturing industry is steadily diminishing. Professionals account for 62% of the U.S. workforce, up from 15% in 1977.

But labor hasn't usually done a good job in recruiting professional workers, said Gary Chaison, a professor of labor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. The labor movement tends to focus on professions that have a large number of employees, such as fast food or hotel workers.

And professionals are hard to organize. They see themselves as individuals promoted on their talents, and often leave their workplaces rather than protest at them, Chaison said. Changing labor laws also have made it harder to organize workplaces than ever before.

"There is a great deal of unrest among professional workers, who don't have a history of union-joining behavior," Chaison said. "They represent the frontiers of unionization in America."

The economy, though, may be driving more employees to look at unions.

One of the most clicked-on links on the professional employees section of the AFL-CIO's website is "I'm a professional. What can a union do for me?" said Paul Almeida, president of the national union's Department for Professional Employees.

"When you come out of a recession, people feel more secure, and say, 'I've taken all the hits and done what I'm supposed to. I deserve my share of what's going on,'" he said.

The legal profession seems especially ripe for organizing because of the abysmal job market.

In Washington, D.C., for example, a group of administrative law judges is trying to form a union under the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. In Canada, legal aid lawyers in Ontario also are trying to organize, in part, because their employer asks employees to share computers to do their work.

At one time, professional workers were encouraged to give input to management to improve the way companies are run. Now they are treated like cogs on the wheel, regardless of the amount of experience or the number of degrees they have under their belt, said Paul Shearon, secretary-treasurer of the federation. "Their level of influence has really diminished, and it's had a dramatic impact on their workplace environments," he said.

Many professionals have pricey educations and are more sensitive to unequal distributions of wealth. That's made them more willing to speak out about inequality at the workplace, said Harley Shaiken, a professor at Berkeley who specializes in labor issues.

That can mean threatening to unionize to get better contracts, if not actually organizing.

"Professional workers have, in many cases, the reach to see how others are doing so much better," he said. "Their supervisors have gotten raises, and the [employees] are marginalized. That difference in status can be particularly grating."

Professional healthcare workers in California picketed across five UC medical centers Wednesday, for example, protesting raises for executives in the face of cuts to wages and benefits for employees.

Still, for many professionals, there can be some culture shock in getting involved in unions. Recently organized workers at New York's Urban Justice Center who went to a public union meeting were treated to singalongs of "Solidarity Forever" and Woody Guthrie's "Union Maid," according to a newsletter.