(May 22) Banana supplies should continue, although prices may rise, if plantation workers in the Uraba province of Colombia carry through their plans for a threatened strike.

Leaders of the 16,000-worker Sintrainagro union have been authorized to call a strike if management didn’t meet their demand for a 10% wage increase in the first year of a three-year contract the workers sought.

The workers are at the end of a two-year deal that they agreed to after a 14-day strike in May 2004. That walkout produced an 8% wage increase for the first year on the contract, with increases in the second year indexed to inflation.

Perhaps more important to banana marketers worldwide, a stoppage would halt production that amounts to about 1.2 million boxes per week, said Juan David Alarcon, chief executive officer of Miami-based Turbana Corp.

The 2004 walkout did little to retail prices, but it left an economic imprint, Alarcon said.

“It took a lot of competitive advantage from the growers against other countries because they had increasing costs,” Alarcon said. “It didn’t have any direct affect (on prices) in the U.S., because prices are tied to market conditions. The price goes up when demand goes up.”

A work stoppage would affect 317 plantations in Uraba.

Colombia exported about 63 million boxes of bananas in 2005, according to the union.

Banana marketers in the U.S. say they have contingency plans in place in case of a walkout.

But a strike is no sure bet, said Alarcon, whose company imports about 200,000 boxes of its yearly U.S. volume of 15 million boxes of bananas and plantains from Colombia.

Alarcon said workers voted May 7 to authorize their union leaders to call a strike. But, he added, talks had been going well and a walkout seemed unlikely.

A strike wouldn’t directly affect every U.S. banana company. Westlake Village, Calif.-based Dole Food Co. Inc., for example, doesn’t source any product from the Uraba region. The company does, however, bring in organic and conventional fruit from plantations in the Santa Marta region in Colombia.

But a strike could ripple across the industry, anyway, said Richard Dahl, Dole’s president and chief operating officer.

“I think what will happen is people will move to Ecuador and potentially increase the price of Ecuadorean fruit,” he said. “That fruit is already under pricing pressure. In this case, just about everybody would have to go to Ecuador for fruit. So, if you’re sourcing in Colombia and you’re impacted by this, you’ll probably have to go to Ecuador.”

The two other major banana marketers in the U.S. — Chiquita Brands International Inc. and Coral Gables, Fla.-based Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc., did not return telephone calls for comment.