Argentine unions strike to protest Milei reforms, pressure lawmakers

Argentina's President Javier Milei attends a business event in Buenos Aires

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -Argentina's oilseed and maritime worker unions kicked off a strike on Monday to protest a labor reform bill backed by radical libertarian President Javier Milei, which lawmakers began debating earlier in the day.

Argentina is one of the world's main exporters of processed soybeans and revenue from commodity exports are a major source of foreign currency needed to pay down debt and finance imports for the cash-strapped government amid a prolonged economic slide.

The SOEA oilseed union operates in the Rosario area, home to most of the country's soybean processing plants and ports.

The strike started just after lawmakers in Argentina's lower house of Congress began debate on two sweeping economic reform bills proposed by Milei that call for privatizations and tighter fiscal policy, as well as taxes on high salaries and a labor reform.

Daniel Succi, the union's secretary general, said the strike will continue while the congressional session lasts.

"Afterwards, we'll see; we'll evaluate," he said.

Milei took power in December pledging to slash public spending and stave off hyperinflation, but his reform push has faced stiff resistance from center-left opponents.

"We have a total stop of activity," Alejandro Vargas, a United Maritime Workers Union (SOMU) leader, told local television.

The maritime union also called for demonstrations at Congress on Tuesday.

The bills up for debate include provisions to lower the threshold for salaries subject to income tax, part of a slimmed-down version of an earlier Milei-backed package.

Gustavo Idigoras, who heads Argentina's oilseeds and grains exporters chamber, said he agreed with the union's opposition to changes to the income tax, but expressed worry.

"This industry pays very good salaries, so it's contradictory to paralyze it (with a strike), making those who provide these jobs lose money," said Idigoras.

The lower house session is expected to be drawn out and could last until Tuesday.

(Reporting by Maximilian Heath; Editing by Brendan O'Boyle, David Gregorio and Leslie Adler)