Wednesday PM July 22nd, 2009

Bell Helicopter strike ends with approval of new contract…Senate considers immigration law changes that would require proof of eligibility to work in U.S… GM and Chrysler defend plans to eliminate dealerships during the second day of Congressional hearings…

The nearly six-week strike at Bell Helicopter is over. Bell said the union representing about 2,500 manufacturing workers approved a new four-year contract. Bell officials said United Auto Workers local 218 members will report back to work to their regular shifts on Monday. Details about contract provisions weren’t immediately available. In mid-June, union members rejected a three-year contract because of proposed increases in medical costs and plans to outsource janitors’ work. That vote led to the strike at several Dallas-Fort Worth area plants.

The Associated General Contractors of America reports a 71 per cent national drop in commercial construction last month, according to the Houston Business Journal. Contractors also report that falling prices for construction materials may be ending, with recent price hikes announced for concrete and asphalt.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke faced more tough questions about the central bank’s efforts to rescue the U.S. economy and a proposal to give it even more responsibility. Bernanke appeared before the Senate Banking Committee, one day after waging a defense of the Fed’s actions before lawmakers in the House. Bernanke says high unemployment is “the most pressing issue” for the economy as the nation struggles to emerge from recession. He also said the fed is monitoring the troubled commercial real estate market, where defaults are rising. Bernanke says the administration’s proposal would be what he calls a “modest reorientation” of the Fed’s powers. He says the administration’s plan to overhaul financial oversight, if it became law, would avoid additional AIG-like taxpayer bailouts.

The Senate Democrat leading the push for changes in immigration law says verifying that people are legally employed will require all workers–citizens and immigrants–to prove they are eligible to hold jobs in the U.S. New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer outlined the work force verification system he envisions at a hearing. Schumer says such a system would need all people to verify their legal status the same way. That way, he says, immigrants authorized to work have the same burden of proof as U.S. citizens. Schumer says using biometrics such as fingerprints would be the most efficient way to verify people are authorized to work in the U.S.

As many as 15,000 Texans who risked exhausting their jobless benefits by the end of next week will continue to receive assistance. The Texas Workforce Commission took emergency action to continue unemployment assistance that could have been lost by the end of July. The vote implements a 13-week extended benefits program. The U.S. Department of Labor agreed to defer some rules of the program, as the state had trouble reprogramming computers to implement eligibility and other requirements. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports the additional benefits will be available to jobless workers who are close to exhausting their 59 weeks of regular state and federal benefits. June unemployment in Texas was 7.5 per cent.

General Motors and Chrysler are defending their plans to eliminate about 3,000 dealerships across the nation during the second day of Congressional hearings on the auto industry. Under criticism in Congress, lawyers for the two auto companies say the dealer reductions were needed as part of a larger plan to help them rebound from bankruptcy. The automakers say the alternative was liquidation and massive job losses. Many lawmakers oppose the plans. They say the dealers received little warning and the cuts will hurt many communities. Car dealers, bankruptcy experts and others are testifying during the hearing. The leader of the Obama administration’s auto task force urges Congress not to intervene into the dealer closings.

Chrysler says it will match the $4,500 government incentive for people to trade in their old gas guzzlers for new vehicles under the “cash for clunkers” program. The automaker announced that it will offer up to $4,500 cash or zero percent financing for six years on most of its 2009 Chrysler, Dodge or Jeep models. The incentive begins Thursday and lasts until August 31st. Chrysler says in a statement that buyers are eligible even if they don’t qualify for the clunkers program. The government’s “cash for clunkers” program is expected to begin later this month. It gives owners of inefficient, older vehicles up to a $4,500 incentive to trade them in and send them to the scrap heap in exchange for more efficient models.

GM says its second-quarter worldwide sales fell 15 per cent compared with the same period last year due to economic troubles and North American production cuts. However, the 1.94 million vehicles GM sold worldwide during the period were up nearly 20 per cent from dismal sales in the first quarter. The automaker said 72 per cent of its global sales for the quarter came from outside the U.S. sales in North America were down 32 per cent. GM says its global market share was 12 per cent, down only slightly from the year-ago quarter despite the company’s U.S. bankruptcy filing. The Detroit automaker says it sold 3.55 million vehicles for the first half of the year, down 22 per cent from the same period last year.

The head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission says manufacturers must comply with new rules aimed at keeping children’s products safe or face the potential of big fines. CPSC head Inez Tenenbaum tells the Associated Press her agency will get new enforcement tools next month–and she plans to use them in order to protect consumers, especially children. As of August 14th, the maximum civil penalty the agency could impose for violations increases significantly, from $1.8 million to $15 million. The new law, called the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act or CPSIA, also ushers in a revised limit for the amount of lead allowed in children’s toys and other products. Lead can cause irreversible brain damage. Tenenbaum says manufacturers will now be required to have a product label that provides the name of the company as well as city and country where it was manufactured. It will also have other identifiers, such as batch and lot numbers.

Federal, state and local investigators have concluded an accidental cause to a fire that devastated a large high plains egg production plant. A statement issued by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says investigators determined that a welder’s torch accidentally started the fire. The July 9th fire at the Cal-Maine Foods plant in Farwell killed an estimated 800,000 chickens and destroyed four of nine laying houses at the complex. Each of the five destroyed buildings covered 24,000 square feet. Four firefighters suffered heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation while fighting the blaze. The Texas State Fire Marshal’s office and the Parmer County Sheriff’s Department also participated in the investigation.

AT&T is bringing out another e-book reader, following in the footsteps of’s Kindle. The Dallas-based telecom plans to support an electronic book reader due early next year from Silicon Valley-based Plastic Logic. It’ll let users access books anywhere there’s a wireless broadband or wi-fi signal. It marks the second significant announcement of the week for plastic logic, which said that Barnes & Noble will supply digital versions of books for its device. AT&T has an extensive network of public wi-fi hot spots, but the parties would not say whether access to that network would be included for owners of the reader. Dallas-based AT&T’s network also is compatible with overseas carriers, which means that the plastic logic reader could work internationally, unlike the Kindle.

A Texas company accused of defrauding a Kansas-based gasoline distributor that eventually filed for bankruptcy says it was the one that was a victim of fraud. Titan Global Holdings last week answered a federal lawsuit filed in May by Phillip Near, the former president of Crescent Oil. Independence, Kansas-based Crescent was unable to supply fuel to convenience store customers in February, causing gasoline shortages in parts of Kansas. Near claims Titan offered to buy Crescent last year but instead siphoned off money and forced near out without paying him. In their response, Titan executives deny Near’s claims. They also countersued, alleging that Near provided them falsified information that hid Crescent’s precarious financial health.

A Norwegian oil services company says Nigerian militants have freed six of its crew members who were seized earlier this month from a chemical tanker. EMS Ship Management says crew members from the tanker Sichem Peace were released last night and will go to Lagos for a medical checkup before flying back to their home countries. The Sichem peace was attacked July 4th by an armed group off Escravos, Nigeria. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, Nigeria’s main militant group, had promised to free the six hostages as part of a 60-day ceasefire it announced last week.

Iraq’s oil minister has met representatives of a British Petroleum-led consortium to discuss plans to develop a prized southern oil field. BP and Chinese consortium partner CNPC walked away from an international oil auction on June 30th with development rights for the 17.8 billion barrel Rumaila field. Their win came after they agreed to take less money for the oil then they had first asked for. Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad says Minister Hussain al-Shahristani spoke with the consortium. According to the ministry, the field’s development plan should be submitted in July and the final contract should be signed in August. Last month’s auction was Iraq’s first international oil licensing round in over three decades.

A few steps into the air-conditioned Mesquite rodeo is all it takes to feel the relief. Cool air. Cheap prices. And the stars of the show sitting nearby, ready with a smile and a pen so they can autograph programs. The Associated Press reports some sponsors have pulled out and a handful of rodeos nationwide have closed this summer. But attendance is up about 12 per cent for each of the two major circuits, the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association and Professional Bull Riders. PRCA Commissioner Karl Stressman says rodeos historically have been up when the economy is down. He thinks a lot of vacationers are staying closer to home this year. The lure begins with affordable tickets, around $10 at many rodeos, even those with concerts as the nightcap.

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