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A full-blown bidding war erupted for AT&T Wireless, as industry leader Vodafone entered the competition with a $35 billion offer Friday, then upped it to $38 billion Sunday at the seller's request, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg.com reported. Both financial news services said Cingular Wireless matched the bids. Anticipated offers from two other suitors, NTT DoCoMo of Japan and Nextel Communications, did not materialize by Friday's deadline, sources familiar with the situation said.

Merck, a leader in the production of pharmaceuticals, announced agreement to sell its laboratory products unit for $1.7 billion. The buyer: private equity group Clayton, Dubilier & Rice Inc. of New York, which specializes in turning around underperforming subsidiaries of large corporations. Merck is Germany's fourth-largest maker of drugs and is not related to US pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. The unit in question, VWR International, is based in West Chester, Pa.

One of history's largest layoffs by a single company - more than 100,000 employees - is planned by China Construction Bank (CCB), according to a published report. Bank officials refused to comment, but the newspaper carrying the report, China Business Post, is thought to be authoritative because it has close ties to the Beijing government, which owns CCB. The bank, which specializes in loans to large corporations, is known to be preparing for an initial public offering aimed at raising up to $5 billion.

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Some 40,000 unionized employees with the Stop & Shop supermarket chain averted a work stoppage when their negotiators approved a new three-year contract just hours before a strike vote Sunday night. Differences were resolved over wage increases and healthcare, with the company agreeing to continue to pay 100 percent of health insurance costs. The chain, based in Quincy, Mass., is the largest in New England and operates more than 200 stores in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

Swift & Co., the nation's third-largest beef processor, will slow operations at two packing plants in response to mad- cow disease problems in Washington State, it announced. About 2,100 employees at plants in Grand Island, Neb., and Greeley, Colo., will not report this week, but are expected to return Feb. 23.

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