* Union leader says wages to increase 70 pct on average
* Strike last month paralyzed several grains ports
* Government ordered compulsory negotiations (Adds details, background)
By Eduardo Garcia and Nicolas Misculin
BUENOS AIRES, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Argentine labor unions representing workers at key grain ports have reached a wage agreement with export companies and called off plans to launch a damaging new strike, a union leader said on Wednesday.
The last-ditch wage talks mediated by the government produced a deal hours before union leaders planned to again block ports in one of the world’s top food suppliers.
“We just formalized the agreement ... We’re satisfied. It’s not as much as we had aimed for, but wages will increase by 70 percent on average,” union leader Edgardo Quiroga told Reuters late on Wednesday night.
Workers at grain ports and soy-crushing plants in the Rosario area went on strike for a week at the end of January, delaying shipments and pushing soy futures higher SH1.
The government forced workers to lift the strike on Feb. 2 as it pushed both sides into 15 days of compulsory negotiations.
That period expired on Wednesday and union leaders had threatened to go back to the picket line if there was no agreement, but the late deal was enough to resolve the wage dispute.
“We’re no longer considering protests,” Quiroga said.
Argentina is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of soy, corn and wheat, and about 80 percent of its soybean and meal is produced around Rosario.
A repeat of the recent strike would have had an even bigger impact on global grain prices this time round as corn and soy harvesting goes into full swing.
Factbox on Argentine grains protests: [ID:nN25253948]
Argentine soybean exports: r.reuters.com/pyr67r
Leading exporters: link.reuters.com/ket72p
Although a damaging strike has been averted, there are still further threats in Argentine agriculture.
Corn farmers, facing shrinking yields and low domestic prices, could lead a drive for fresh protests against the government’s widely criticized export policies. [ID:nN14297403]
Farmers halted grains sales for a week in January to demand the government scrap its export curbs, particularly on wheat, which are aimed at guaranteeing affordable food supplies and taming soaring inflation.
Strikes are common in the run-up to pay talks that normally take place in February or March in Argentina. They are often resolved quickly with government intervention, but an inflation rate of about 25 percent has fueled higher demands this year.
Stevedores, grain handlers and janitors were demanding the same 5,000-peso ($1,202) minimum monthly wage secured by a soy-crushing workers’ union late last year.
Quiroga said the agreement settles the dispute for all the workers involved in the protest, some of whom will see their salaries increasing by as much as 100 percent.
Although they account for just 13 percent of the companies’ work force, they had brought crushing plants and ports to a standstill by blocking access to the facilities.
It also hit government revenue, reducing income from stiff export taxes.
The strike underscored threats of further labor unrest in the coming months as more unions negotiate pay rises in a presidential election year. [ID:nN25191886] ($1 = 4.16 Argentine pesos) (Additional reporting by Maximilian Heath and Walter Bianchi; Writing by Luis Andres Henao and Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Gary Hill and Kieran Murray)