Friday PM June 22nd, 2007

Union workers at Kroger supermarkets in Houston and Dallas avert strike...Mayor White to help find funding for East End Worker Development Center...Gasoline prices continue four-week slide...

Union workers at Kroger supermarkets in the Dallas and Houston areas have reached a tentative agreement, heading off a possible strike.ξ Terms of the deal have not been released.ξ The Cincinnati-based grocery chainξhad takenξout newspaper advertisements Thursday to hire new workers.ξ Kroger spokesman Russell Richard declined to call the hires replacement workers, but he says the company wasξ"planning for every possible contingency.'' Member of the United Food and Commercial Workers must vote on the contract.ξ The union's Dallas local represents about 600 meat cutters in 90 Kroger stores who have been without a contract since June 6th. In Houston, more than 12,000 cashiers, meat cutters and other workers at 110 stores have been without a contract since March 31st.

A spokesman for Bill White says the Houston mayor will help find $100,000 to keep a controversial day labor center open. City officials decided recently not to renew its annual contract with Neighborhood Centers to operate the site. Critics say the East End Worker Development Center encourages illegal immigration because it's popular with illegal workers who gather there to seek employment. The center has been funded through the Federal Community Development Block Grant program. Without funding, it faces closure at the end of the month. Spokesman Frank Michel says White has agreed to work with the nonprofit's operators to find other sources of funding. Supporters say the center also serves legal workers, and it eliminates the safety hazards of workers seeking jobs on city streets.

Retail gasoline prices continued to ease for the fourth week in a row across Texas this week. The weekly AAA Texas gas price survey finds retail prices of regular-grade gasoline averaged $2.91 per gallon in the 11 Texas cities surveyed. That's four cents less than last week. The national average fell five cents to $3 a gallon. El Paso has the state's highest average retail price for regular grade at $3.13 per gallon. Corpus Christi saw the lowest average price of $2.78 per gallon. Both are down six cents from last week.

An increase in automobile fuel economy and new laws against energy price-gouging. Those are some of the provisions in an energy bill passed by the Senate. The legislation would also require huge increases in the production of ethanol. If it becomes law, the auto industry will have to boost average fuel economy by 40 percent to 35 miles per gallon for cars, SUVs and pickup trucks by 2020. Majority leader Harry Reid held off the vote until late into the evening so several Senators could be called back to Capitol Hill to provide the 60-vote margin needed to overcome a threatened filibuster from pro-auto industry Senators. Shortly before midnight, Senators voted 62-32 to cut off debate, and followed by passing the bill 65-27. The measure now awaits action by the House.

Governor Rick Perry has signed a bill that requires state pension funds to divest from companies doing business with the Sudanese government. The law--which takes effect January 1st--involves the State Employees Retirement System and the Teachers Retirement System. Texas joins 16 other states seeking to limit or end investment with companies in Sudan, where more than 200,000 people have been killed since 2003 due to civil strife. The U.S. has deemed the murders genocide and has largely blamed the Sudanese government and government-backed militias.

Dallas-based private equity firm Lone Star Funds confirmed that it sold 13.6 percent of Korea Exchange Bank. It says it made overnight block sales of the shares to institutions for $1.28 billion. The sales leave Lone Star with 51 percent of Exchange Bank. Lone Star says it'll hold onto this stake for sale until it can find "a strategic investor'' to buy it. Lone Star Chairman John Grayken said in a statement that the aim of the overnight sale was to pay down Lone Star debt. South Korea's Hana Financial Group has said it wants to take a controlling stake in Korea Exchange Bank. It said it bought shares of exchange bank but wouldn't say how many. Lone Star's sale was priced at $14.68 per share. That's a 6.8 percent discount to Exchange Bank's closing share price Thursday. Pending legal cases surrounding Lone Star's purchase of Exchange Bank in 2003 have deterred buyers up to now. A Seoul court is investigating allegations that Lone Star helped underestimate the bank's financial strength to make it easier to buy. Lone Star's also alleged to have manipulated the credit card unit. Lone Star has denied any wrongdoing.

Reliant Energy and Shriners Hospitals for Children host the 4th annual Reliant Energy Field Day for young patients and their families this weekend. The event is midday Saturday at the Methodist Training Center on Lantern Point Drive.

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