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Business
AP
Union votes to strike at General Motors' US plants
 
 09.15.19

DETROIT — Roughly 49,000 workers at General Motors plants in the U.S. plan to go on strike just before midnight Sunday, but talks between the United Auto Workers and the automaker will resume.

About 200 plant-level union leaders voted unanimously in favor of a walkout during a meeting Sunday morning in Detroit. Union leaders said the sides were still far apart on several major issues and they apparently weren’t swayed by a GM offer to make new products at or near two of the four plants it had been planning to close, according to someone briefed on the matter.

“We stood up for General Motors when they needed us most,” union Vice President Terry Dittes said in a statement, referring to union concessions that helped GM survive bankruptcy protection in 2009. “Now we are standing together in unity and solidarity for our members.”

UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said Sunday evening that contract talks would resume at 10 a.m. Monday, but the strike was still expected to go ahead.

GM on Friday offered to build a new all-electric pickup truck at a factory in Detroit that is slated to close next year, according someone who spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because that person wasn’t authorized to disclose details of the negotiations, which hadn’t been released to the public. The automaker also offered to open an electric vehicle battery plant in Lordstown, Ohio, where it has a plant that has already stopped making cars. The new factory would be in addition to a proposal to make electric vehicles for a company called Workhorse, the person said.

It’s unclear how many workers the two plants would employ. The closures, especially of the Ohio plant, have become issues in the 2020 presidential campaign. President Donald Trump has consistently criticized the company and demanded that Lordstown be reopened.

The UAW’s Rothenberg said the company made general statements about why it is planning to strike, but he would not comment further on GM’s offer. The union said it would strike for fair wages, affordable health care, profit sharing, job security and a path to permanent employment for temporary workers.

In a statement, GM also said the offer made to the union on Saturday included more than $7 billion in U.S. factory investments and the creation of 5,400 new positions, a minority of which would be filled by existing employees. GM would not give a precise number. The investments would be made at factories in four states, two of which were not identified.

The statement also said the company offered “best in class wages and benefits,” improved profit sharing and a payment of $8,000 to each worker upon ratification. The offer included wage or lump sum increases in all four years of the deal, plus “nationally leading” health benefits.

The announcement came hours after the union let its contract with GM expire Saturday night.

If there is a strike, picketers would shut down a total of 53 GM facilities, including 33 manufacturing sites and 22 parts distribution warehouses. GM has factories in Michigan, Ohio, New York, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, Missouri, Indiana and Kansas.

On Saturday, Dittes, the union’s chief bargainer, said in a letter to GM members that after months of bargaining, both the union and GM were far apart on issues such as wages, health care, temporary employees, job security and profit-sharing. The letter to members and another one to GM were aimed at turning up the pressure on GM negotiators.

A strike would bring to a halt GM’s U.S. production, and would likely stop the company from making vehicles in Canada and Mexico as well. That would mean fewer vehicles for consumers to choose from on dealer lots, and it would make it impossible to build specially ordered cars and trucks.

The strike would be the union’s first since a two-day work stoppage at GM in 2007.

On Friday, union leaders extended contracts with Ford and Fiat Chrysler indefinitely, but the pact with General Motors was still set to expire Saturday night. The union picked GM as the focus for bargaining because it is more profitable than Ford and Fiat Chrysler.

Talks between the union and GM were tense from the start, largely because GM plans to close four U.S. factories, including the one on the Detroit border with the enclave of Hamtramck, and Lordstown. The union has promised to fight the closures.

Here are the main areas of disagreement:

GM is making big money, $8 billion last year alone, and workers want a bigger slice. The union wants annual pay raises to guard against an economic downturn, but the company wants to pay lump sums tied to earnings. Automakers don’t want higher fixed costs

  • .
  • The union also wants new products for the four factories GM wants to close. The factory plans have irked some workers, although most of those who were laid off will get jobs at other GM factories. GM currently has too much U.S. factory capacity.
  • The companies want to close the labor cost gap with workers at plants run by foreign automakers. GM pays $63 per hour in wages and benefits compared with $50 at the foreign-owned factories. GM’s gap is the largest at $13 per hour, followed by Ford at $11 and Fiat Chrysler at $5, according to figures from the Center for Automotive Research.
  • Union members have great health insurance plans and workers pay about 4% of the cost. Employees at large firms nationwide pay about 34%, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The automakers would like to cut costs.

Business
AP
Mobile home parks move from mom-and-pop to corporate
 
 09.15.19

DENVER — In the Aurora mobile home park where she lived for 16 years, eviction notices kept coming to Petra Bennett’s door — for unauthorized guests, lack of insurance, late rent. They were bogus threats to make the single mother leave. And eventually, she did.

In Federal Heights, Karla Lyons’ waitressing wages are eaten up by a constant stream of home and yard repairs ordered by her park manager, including removal of a giant maple tree that fell on her patio roof and crushed it. She would move if she could afford it.

And in Boulder, Greg Gustin carries a knife in the pocket of his jeans while on duty as manager of a 1950s-era mobile home park that is one of the sketchiest spots in town. When a resident was accused of strangling his wife last year and leaving her to die in the manager’s officer, Gustin pulled surveillance video to defend himself to police.

Across Colorado, where the housing crisis impacts both rural and urban towns, the strife between mobile home park residents and park owners is approaching a boiling point. The business model — in which homeowners pay lot rent to park their houses on someone else’s land — exposes the immobility and economic vulnerability of tenants who can’t afford to move or live anywhere else.

Mobile homes provide the largest inventory of unsubsidized, affordable housing in the nation, but many began as RV parks in the 1960s and 1970s and are now old, with rundown water and electric systems and trailers that have been long past “mobile” for decades.

The Colorado Sun, along with more than a dozen partner news organizations across the state, spent the summer visiting mobile home parks to hear from residents, managers and owners. The project found that the number of parks is declining and ownership is consolidating as mom-and-pop parks sell out to large investors, which sometimes leads to displacement and redevelopment — and, in the eyes of many residents, an imbalance of power that threatens their low-cost lifestyle.

More than 100,000 people live in more than 900 parks across Colorado. Those residents include many of Colorado’s working poor and immigrants who are undocumented. They have been mostly ignored for decades.

“We’ve relegated mobile home parks to a corner of the American imaginary,” said Esther Sullivan, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado Denver and author of a book on mobile homes called “Manufactured Insecurity.”

“We have media representation of who is living there and stereotypes of who is living there that are absolutely false. In reality, this is a major swath of our workforce. This is the primary way that our working households attain the American dream of home ownership.”

Born in the post-World War II era, when quick, cheap housing was in demand among returning veterans, mobile homes endured and hit a peak in the early 1970s, according to U.S. Census data, before beginning a gradual decline in new home sales. Today, 70% of homes sold under $125,000 are mobile homes.

Sullivan calls mobile homes the largest source of “naturally occurring” affordable housing, an organic solution not created by public policy or housing assistance. Mobile home residents live under the radar — literally zoned out of sight and segregated from conventional housing. In 2015, their median income was $39,000.

“We could lose this crucial source of affordable housing and low-income home ownership,” she said, “which would exacerbate the affordable housing crisis.”

Even now, the diminishing number of mobile home units represents the last, best hope for some semblance of home ownership.

“It’s like living half the American dream,” Fort Collins City Council member Emily Gorgol, an advocate for protecting mobile home parks, told The Coloradoan, “because you own your home but not the land underneath your feet.”

A near-captive clienteleIn Colorado, economic, political and social forces converged this year to usher in the first significant changes in the law governing mobile home parks in years, giving traction to homeowners and setting the table for further reforms in the 2020 legislative session.

Residents complained that park owners could evict them with just 48 hours’ notice. Many spoke of a homeowner-versus-park-owner drama that has residents fixing up their homes or lawns to meet park owners’ demands. Residents might invest tens of thousands of dollars — either by choice or under threat of eviction — in a mobile home that, in reality, isn’t likely to move from its initial hookup. (In fact, mobile homes built before 1976 face legal hurdles to moving; since then, the industry has referred to them as “manufactured” homes.)

Mobile home parks have been regulated, in theory, since Colorado passed the 1985 Mobile Home Park Act. But enforcement has been another matter. With no dispute resolution mechanism in place, conflicts were left to the courts — a potentially expensive proposition that almost universally favored park owners.

This year, with both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s office ruled by Democrats, changes to the law sailed through, even with some bipartisan support. Tight deadlines to cure late rent payments and, in cases of eviction, sell homes or move have been eased. County governments now have the power to enact ordinances governing the many mobile home parks that reside in unincorporated areas. And stakeholders currently are hammering out rules for a dispute resolution mechanism that will be available by May.

Part of the impetus for the changes came from economic shifts within the industry.

Corporate and institutional investors, attracted by potentially hefty profits from a near-captive clientele, underscore what has always been an unusual housing proposition. And such acquisitions have ramped up in recent years.

Today, the top 50 owners of mobile home parks have a combined 680,000 home sites across America, a 26% increase from 2016 to 2018, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute. Investors and private equity firms, formed by investors who directly invest in other companies, now own more than 150,000 manufactured home sites, according to a 2019 report from three housing advocacy groups.

The Utah-based Kingsley Management Corp., for example, has seven parks along Colorado’s Front Range.

Nationwide, an estimated 20 million Americans live in mobile home parks. Nearly 10% of the nation’s housing stock is manufactured homes, which numbered about 8.5 million in 2018, the institute reported.

Park owners charge residents rent for the lot on which the unit sits. The tangle of rights and responsibilities for decades has favored the park owners. But now, as the housing shortage becomes more acute and mobile home residents become more organized, power dynamics may be shifting.

In Aurora last summer, residents of the 60-lot Denver Meadows Mobile and RV Park were told to vacate when the park’s owner announced plans to sell the property for redevelopment. The 20-acre park sits near the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center and prime access to a new light-rail line. Residents fought the upheaval, and though they were forced to move, many received financial assistance based on the value of their trailers.

Bennett, who worked as a convenience store manager while she raised her children at Denver Meadows, said she was threatened with eviction so many times during her last year there that she was emotionally exhausted. Among the final straws: the park denied her request to let her sister from Germany stay with her for one month — anything longer than a two-week visit was against park rules. For months, she helped fellow residents fight the park’s closure.

Bennett left the park six months before it closed, lost her manufactured home to foreclosure and used all of her savings to buy a small, conventional home in Aurora. “It’s costing me double what I used to pay, but at least nobody is going to take it away from me and say I can’t live here,” she said.

Seattle-based attorney Ishbel Dickens, who helped organize Boulder homeowners groups, notes that fear of losing their home sends many residents retreating into silence. Immigrants not only fear eviction, but also that authorities might question their legal status if they cause a problem.

Still, many mobile home parks — Dickens calls them “gated communities for low-income families” — have a sense of shared experience that fosters the kind of tight-knit neighborhoods that, under the right circumstances, can be moved to action.

“It’s crisis that brings people together,” she said.

No ‘hillbilly’ parks

Mobile home parks have long represented a slice of the American dream for those who couldn’t afford land, or perhaps for those who wanted a place to park a summer home. Now, though, their reputation increasingly has evolved into a cash cow for park owners.

Look to Mobile Home University based south of Denver in Castle Rock. Frank Rolfe and Dave Reynolds, who own the fifth-highest number of mobile home parks in the nation, are educating other entrepreneurs about how to follow in their footsteps. The two men own 200 parks in 25 states, and for the past decade, have been teaching others how to invest in the industry.

They started Mobile Home University, Rolfe told the Denver bureau of The Associated Press, because no one had taken the mobile home industry seriously for half a century.

Rolfe’s training academy has been widely criticized — including on “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver — for teaching people how they can reap profits from homeowners whom Rolfe has referred to as held “hostage.” In defense, Rolfe said local owners have kept rent “unsustainably low” and that many are “held together with chicken wire and duct tape.”

“What you have occurring is you have these mom-and-pops basically never adjusting for inflation,” he said. “Every park is a turnaround where you’re trying to bring the whole mobile home park back to life, so you either raise the rent to do that or you tear it down.”

When Rolfe buys a park, he typically enacts new rules about upkeep and safety. “Mobile home park owners hate losing residents so we bend over backward to not lose anyone,” he said. “If a house doesn’t meet rules, we’ll do it for them.

“I don’t have any hillbilly parks, gravel roads or residents who can’t pay their rent.”

Homeowners at times view the rules as nitpicky and intrusive, questioning why the landowner has authority over whether the home they own needs new paint, for example. But park owners and managers take a different view, often bringing up safety.

Gustin, manager of Ponderosa Mobile Home Park in north Boulder, has outfitted his whole park with security cameras. “I feel so unsafe that I have 25 live security cameras that record 10 days worth of data,” he said. “It is a dangerous job.”


Business
AP
Aramco attacks show company entanglement in Saudi politics
 
 09.15.19

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The weekend drone attack on one of the world’s largest crude oil processing plants that dramatically cut into global oil supplies is the most visible sign yet of how Aramco’s stability and security is directly linked to that of its owner — the Saudi government and its ruling family.

The strikes, which U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed on Iran despite staunch denials by Tehran, led to suspension of more than 5% of the world’s daily crude oil production, bringing into focus just how vulnerable the company is to Saudi Arabia’s conflicts outside the country’s borders, particularly with regional rival Iran.

That matters greatly because Aramco produces and exports Saudi Arabia’s more than 9.5 million barrels of oil per day to consumers around the world, primarily in Asia.

It also comes as the state-owned company heads toward a partial public sale. To prepare for an initial public offering, the company has recently taken steps to distance itself from the Saudi government, which is controlled by the Al Saud ruling family.

The plan to list part of Aramco is key to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic diversification efforts that are aimed at preparing the kingdom for a future less reliant on oil exports for revenue.

As he races to overhaul the economy, he’s also led Saudi Arabia as its defense minister into a war in Yemen that appears to have made the kingdom, and by extension Aramco, more vulnerable to attacks.

The pre-dawn attacks Saturday were claimed by Iranian-backed Yemeni rebels, although there are questions about whether the drones were launched from Yemen. Saudi Arabia has been at war with the Houthi rebels in Yemen since early 2015, but this is by far the most infrastructurally devastating attack inside the kingdom since the conflict began.

Eurasia Group notes that Saudi Arabia’s air defense systems are designed to defend against traditional threats but are ill-equipped to tackle asymmetrical aerial threats from drones.

The attacks targeted Abqaiq processing facility and the Khurais oil field. Abqaiq is home to the world’s largest oil processing facility and crude oil stabilization plant, where oil is made safe for transport on ships.

Aramco’s handling of the incident is being watched closely, particularly amid reports of a local listing of 1% of the company as soon as November.

The public first learned of the attacks from residents of the area who uploaded videos and photos of the massive fires at the processing facility in the eastern city of Buqyaq.

It wasn’t until 22 hours later that Aramco issued its own statement, acknowledging its plants had been attacked and that daily production of 5.7 million barrels of crude had been disrupted.

Aramco CEO Amin Nasser was quoted in the brief statement as saying work was under way to restore production and a progress update would be provided in around 48 hours.

What commodity traders are most looking for now is how long the suspension of production will last. Aramco has not said what that timeframe might be.

A lengthy disruption is almost certain to drive global oil prices well above the $60 a barrel that trading closed at on Friday.

When markets open Monday, prices could rocket by up to $10 a barrel in a knee-jerk reaction, though the sustainability of the rally will hinge on an assessment of the magnitude and duration of the supply shortfall, said Vandana Hari, founder of Singapore’s Vanda Insights.

Hari said potential investors in Aramco are going to be looking at the company’s transparency and communication practices in this current crisis.

“Having said that, it’s clear that Aramco does not operate independently from the government and is not free to manage its own messaging,” she said.

The loss of more than 5% of the world’s oil supply — no matter for how many days — is not an internal Saudi matter, she said. “It is the whole world’s concern. With that in view, the official communication on the matter has fallen woefully short so far.”

Hasnain Malik, head of equity strategy research at the Tellimer investment research and advisory firm, said the attacks demonstrate the security risks “which should be baked into the valuation of Aramco.”

The Saudi crown prince has set Aramco’s valuation at around $2 trillion, but many estimates put it at closer to $1.5 trillion.

Ranjith Raja, a lead analyst at Refinitiv, said a major disruption to Aramco’s processing plant will have an effect on the company’s ability to meet client expectations and contract requirements.

The security and stability of Saudi Arabia as one of the world’s largest and most vital oil producers was emphasized by U.S. President Donald Trump in a call with the crown prince “to offer his support” to the kingdom after the attacks.

The U.S. Energy Department has also said it stands ready to release crude from its Strategic Petroleum Oil Reserves if necessary to offset any disruptions to oil markets.

Energy expert Ellen Wald said despite this setback and threats to Saudi Arabia’s security, “Aramco is secure.”


Local
Waco couple sues over surgery-related radiation burns
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 
 09.15.19

A Waco woman who says she suffered severe radiation burns during surgery two years ago has filed a lawsuit against a Waco surgeon, a surgical clinic and a local hospital.

Omalene Garon and her husband, Edgar, are seeking unspecified damages in their lawsuit, filed earlier this month in Waco’s 74th State District Court against Dr. David Hoffman, Waco Surgical Clinic, Providence Health Alliance, Ascension Medical Group Providence General Surgery and Ascension Providence.

Hoffman did not return a message seeking comment on the lawsuit. Ascension Texas spokesperson Danielle Hall also declined comment on the lawsuit.

“We are unable to comment on any issues pertaining to pending litigation,” Hall said. “Our highest priority remains providing a safe environment for the patients and communities we are privileged to serve.”

According to the lawsuit, Omalene Garon was admitted by Hoffman for out-patient surgery to Ascension Providence on Sept. 7, 2017. Hoffman performed a mesenteric angiogram, a test used to look at the blood vessels that supply the small and large intestines.

“The nurses, technicians and defendant Dr. Hoffman set up and utilized fluoroscopy without adequate safety precautions during the procedure causing plaintiff Omalene Garon’s abdominal area to be exposed to an excessive dosage of unnecessary radiation,” the suit alleges.

Fluoroscopy is an X-ray technique that provides real-time moving images, effectively an X-ray video.

After the procedure, Hoffman indicated to Garon that she had no complications and that her condition was good. He sent her home, the suit states.

“Several weeks later, plaintiff developed intense burning, pain and a rash in her right abdominal area,” according to the allegations. “Plaintiff sought medical care and was diagnosed as having a severe radiation burn from her superficial skin all the way down to her soft tissue and muscle due to over-exposure of radiation from the mesenteric procedure performed by defendants.”

The radiation burn caused a “huge, deep and painful ulcer” that extended into Garon’s abdomen. Flesh, soft tissue and muscle that was burned slowly died, the suit contends.

“Plaintiff received care from multiple specialists including dermatology, plastic surgery and wound care,” according to the petition. “She had to endure 14 weeks of painful wound care treatments including debridement and over 40 hyperbaric treatments. Plaintiff also required additional surgery to remove an 8-inch diameter area that was too burned to heal.”

The suit, filed on the Garons’ behalf by Lewisville attorney Colleen Carboy, alleges negligence and claims Garon has been permanently disfigured and likely will require ongoing pain management for the rest of her life.


Local
Waco-based veteran research center gets $500K grant for free mental health care
 
 09.15.19

Baylor Scott & White Health has received a $500,000 grant to help its Warriors Research Institute in Waco expand free mental health treatment to Texas veterans and their families, according to a press release.

The Warriors Research Institute received the grant from the Texas Veterans Commission Fund for Veterans’ Assistance. It will allow the institute to expand a pilot program serving Central Texas to a statewide program providing telehealth treatment open to veterans and their family members, according to the press release.

Participants will use live video conferencing to work with clinicians who are trained on military and veteran culture, in part by a war veteran and licensed mental health professional, the press release states.

“Our successful Vet PaTHs pilot demonstrated this treatment format as a great match for this population,” institute associate director Eric Meyer is quoted as saying in the press release. “The vast majority of feedback we received from both veterans and family members showed substantial improvements in quality of life as a result of these services.”

Veterans and family members interested in participating can contact the institute about the Statewide Evidence-Based Telehealth Treatment program at 716-6208 or wri@bswhealth.org. Participation is not dependent on discharge status.