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Canadian ministers meet with CN Rail, union in effort to avert strike

Allison Lampert and Rod Nickel

MONTREAL/WINNIPEG, Nov 18 (Reuters) - Canada's Liberal government sent two ministers on Monday to meet with representatives of Canadian National Railway Ltd and its largest union, as already hard-hit shippers pleaded for government intervention to avert a strike planned for early on Tuesday.

The threatened strike by 3,000 workers with Teamsters Canada comes as the country is grappling with softer demand for freight.

Labor Minister Patty Hajdu and Transportation Minister Marc Garneau were to meet with representatives from CN, the country's largest railroad operator, and the union in Montreal, Hajdu's press secretary Veronique Simard told Reuters, following a stalemate in contract negotiations.

CN has said it continues to "negotiate in good faith" and had offered the union binding arbitration which it declined. The Teamsters and CN reached a last-minute deal in 2017 that averted a planned strike. CN said on Friday it would cut management and union jobs, as it grapples with softer economic conditions. Canada, one of the world's biggest exporters of farm products, relies on its two main railways to move canola and wheat over the vast distances from western farms to ports. Crude oil shippers in Alberta have also used trains in the past two years to reach U.S. refineries as an alternative to congested pipelines.

Alberta wheat and barley commissions, representing farmers, urged Ottawa to intervene, as they are already facing difficult harvest conditions because of harsh weather. "There are a lot of farmers who already have a significant amount of their income trapped under snow," said Gary Stanford, Alberta Wheat Commission chair. "Now adding insult to injury, were looking at possible CN rail strike action too."

CN was expecting slightly lower fourth-quarter crude shipments from the third quarter, officials said on an Oct. 22 conference call.

Slumping commodity prices, congested oil pipelines and a dispute with China that has hampered Canadian agriculture exports have pressured the economies of resource-rich western provinces.

A Teamsters Canada spokesman said the planned strike by its conductors, train personnel and yard workers comes because workers are "hitting a wall on issues related to health and safety," not wages.

"While we continue to negotiate in good faith and in hopes of avoiding a labor dispute, we have every intention of striking at 0:01 am ET tonight unless an agreement can be reached before then," spokesman Christopher Monette said by email.

CN shares were trading down 0.50% in early afternoon Toronto trading. (Reporting By Allison Lampert in Montreal and Rod Nickel in Winnipeg; Additional reporting by Kelsey Johnson in Ottawa; Editing by Tom Brown)