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Tuesday AM November 21st, 2006

Striking janitors report tentative agreement…Business economists expect slower growth…Baylor College of Medicine receiving federal grant for DNA sequencing project… Hundreds of Houston janitors ended their month-long strike against five cleaning companies.  Officials say the agreement will guarantee higher wages, more work hours and medical benefits.  Visiting Professor Maria Jimenez at the Center for Mexican-American Studies […]

Striking janitors report tentative agreement…Business economists expect slower growth…Baylor College of Medicine receiving federal grant for DNA sequencing project…

Hundreds of Houston janitors ended their month-long strike against five cleaning companies.  Officials say the agreement will guarantee higher wages, more work hours and medical benefits.  Visiting Professor Maria Jimenez at the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Houston says civil disobedience is more necessary in Texas than in strong union states, but there is also the danger of a backlash.

“I think that the backlash was also there, particularly the reaction of the police to the last civil disobedience act on Thursday where your, the mounted police did trample over some of the people who, who were in civil disobedience, plus the reaction of the district attorney. You know, the district attorney asked the magistrate to place bond of $880,000 per person that had been arrested, which is outrageous when you think about murderers get less.”

Jimenez says the civil disobedience likely led to a quicker settlement.

“Even though there was a small backlash to the civil disobedience, I believe the janitors and the population sustain, support that the more aggressive civil disobedience tactics also, I think, put pressure on a lot of the business leadership and a lot of the political leadership that they needed to intervene to try to settle this as quickly as possible. And I think whether people like it or not, the ultimate effect was that it did force both business leaders and political leaders that had been silent to become active and vocal to attempt to settle.”

Houston Mayor Bill White says it’s a milestone for the city, and the agreement will lift the lives of hard-working residents trying to get by each day.

A new survey of business economists shows most expect the economy will continue to grow next year, but at a slower pace. The poll was conducted by the National Association for Business Economics. And it predicts year-over-year growth of the Gross Domestic Product will be 2.8 percent by the end of 2007. The outlook for housing has deteriorated a bit, with housing starts projected to be down by 100,000 units. But the economists also look for the sector to bottom out in the coming year. Inflation is expected to dip next year, reflecting lower energy costs. The Consumer Price Index is forecast to increase by 2.5 percent, with the core CPI, which includes food and energy, up 2.4 percent. The business survey calls for the price of oil to be $60 a barrel and the end of this year and $56 by the end of 2007.

A forward-looking gauge of the economy suggests moderate growth ahead. The Conference Board says its Index of Leading Economic Indicators rose two-tenths of one percent in October. The index is intended to predict economic activity three to six months down the road. The LEI fell in both July and August before edging modestly higher in September. It has been down four of the last seven months. Conference Board economist Ken Goldstein says the impacts of a slower housing market and profit growth are being weighed against lower gasoline prices and a rising stock market.

A joint Harvard/MIT research venture in genetics will receive a nearly $200 million federal grant for a DNA sequencing project. The work includes research to uncover links between cancer and genetics. Some of the research money will be heading for Texas, including the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard is the recipient of the largest of three grants announced today by the National Human Genome Research Institute. Another recipient are Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

NEXUS Health Systems has broken ground on a $7.5 million expansion of HealthBridge Children’s Hospital, according to the Houston Business Journal. HealthBridge on Woodland Park Drive provides step-down ICU and rehabilitative care for technologically dependent and medically fragile children. The expansion is slated for completion in January 2008.

House Democrats are targeting billions of dollars in oil company tax breaks for quick repeal next year. But hot-button issues such as a tax on the oil industry’s windfall profits or sharp increases in automobile fuel economy are not expected to gain much ground given the narrow Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. For the most part, the tax benefits due for quick review are ones that lawmakers talked of repealing this year when summer fuel prices soared and oil companies took huge profits. Topping the list for possible repeal: tax breaks for refinery expansion and for geological studies to help oil exploration, and a tax credit for drilling in this country rather than abroad.

The pilots union at American Airlines has offered to settle a contract dispute that could become an obstacle to the carrier’s bid for new flights to China. The current contract requires American to reach an agreement with the Allied Pilots Association for new service–like flights between China and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. The union today said it’s given American a signed letter of agreement authorizing the flights–if American signs it too. In exchange, union president Ralph Hunter said the group is seeking a number of no-cost items for pilots. American is competing against Houston-based Continental Airlines, Northwest Airlines and United Airlines to offer new weekly nonstop flights to China. The U.S. Transportation Department will pick the winning bidder in a few weeks.

The U.S. and Russia have signed a key trade agreement. The widely anticipated deal was signed by their trade representatives Sunday on the sidelines of the Pacific Rim Economic Summit in Vietnam. It’s seen as a major economic milestone that paves the way for Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Russia is the largest economy still outside the 149-member WTO, which sets the rules for global trade. The deal also marks a bright spot in recently strained relations between Washington and Moscow. They’ve disagreed over Iran’s controversial nuclear program and U.S. fears of a roll-back of democratic freedoms under Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Russia is a big oil and gas exporter, and membership in the World Trade Organization means it will get the same favorable tariff rates as other members. That should provide more business opportunities and make Russia more attractive to outside investors.

For thousands of years, cotton has been one of the most important crops for clothing and shelter. Now, it might also become a source of food. A chemical called gossypol makes cottonseed inedible for humans. However, some is used in feed for cattle, which are less affected by the toxin. Now, Texas A&M University researchers have genetically modified cotton to produce seeds with little or no gossypol. It’s a step they say could help provide valuable protein to millions of people. Their findings are reported in current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Keerti Rathore of A&M’s Institute for Plant Genomics and Biotechnology says the modified plants still have gossypol in their stems and leaves where it helps resist insects. But the chemical is significantly reduced in the seed–which is 23 percent protein. Cottonseed is pressed for oil, and in the United States about half of the remaining meal goes into animal feed. But Rathore says that with the gossypol removed, the meal can be ground into flour and used in cooking. Rathore’s research was funded by the Texas Cotton Biotechnology Initiative, Cotton Incorporated and the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station.

Houston has another airport parking facility. Merit Parking has opened SPEEDPark on Will Clayton Parkway at Kenswick near Houston Intercontinental Airport. The half-million square-foot facility features 1,500 parking spaces, including 500 covered spaces. Ten shuttles run 24 hours a day for access to each terminal at the airport.

A Texas company’s plan to spread sewage sludge as fertilizer on two reclaimed coal mines in Maryland has drawn complaints. Some nearby residents fear it will contaminate their drinking water. But Houston-based Synagro Technologies said its proposal is designed to improve–not hurt–the environment. The Maryland Department of the Environment is weighing Synagro’s applications to apply up to 240 tons of treated sludge a day on old mine sites. The area is near the Allegany-Garrett County line. The sites are owned by Jenkins Development and Koontz Coal. The sludge, also called biosolids, is a crumbly, moist substance that remains after human waste is treated at sewage plants.

If you’ve ever bought a TV, or a washing machine or some other pricey item, you probably had the sales guy push you to add an extended warranty. But Consumer Reports has three words of advice: just say no. The magazine is launching a campaign in time for the holiday season. It’s urging consumers to pass up those warranties which go beyond what the manufacturer includes. Typically, the cost runs from $100 to $400. But Consumer Reports calls them a crummy deal in almost every case. And they warn that with prices coming down for a number of electronic items, you can expect stores to push those extended warranties harder than ever. The magazine sees a couple of instances where the warranties are worth buying. They cite rear-projection microdisplay TVs, which have a greater tendency to need repairs. And also Apple Computers, which have only 90 days of tech support.

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