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CN workers ready to strike at midnight, and it's not about the money

A Canadian National Railway train travels eastward on a track in Montreal, February 22, 2015. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

Canadian National Railway (CNR) and the union representing thousands of its workers resumed negotiations with the help of federal cabinet ministers on Monday, in the hopes of reaching a deal before a midnight strike deadline.

About 3,000 CN conductors, trainpersons and yard workers represented by Teamsters Canada Rail Conference could walk off the job at 12:01 a.m. ET on Tuesday if a settlement isn’t reached – a move that could wreak havoc for shippers ahead of the winter season.

Labour Minister Patty Hajdu and Transport Minister Marc Garneau will meet with both CN and Teamsters in Montreal on Monday as talks continue, Hajdu’s press secretary Véronique Simard said in an emailed statement.

The union issued the required 72-hour strike notice on Friday after months of negotiations failed to produce a new collective agreement.

Teamsters director of public affairs Christopher Monette said that wages are not a sticking point in these negotiations, but that the union is “hitting a wall on issues relating to health and safety.” The union wants changes to operating practices that it says are dangerous and is refusing to accept a lifetime cap on prescription drug coverage.

“The company is stubbornly refusing to budge and does not appear to be serious about reaching a negotiated settlement,” Monette said in an email on Monday.

“While we continue to negotiate in good faith and in hopes of avoiding a labour dispute, we have every intention of striking at 12:01 a.m. ET tonight, unless an agreement can be reached before then.”

CN said in a statement that it is committed to constructive talks and will continue negotiating in good faith in order to reach an agreement before Tuesday’s deadline.

A work stoppage at the country’s largest railroad could pose a threat to the Canadian economy, especially if it is prolonged.

Jeff Nielsen, chair of the Grain Growers of Canada, is one of the many people monitoring the negotiations, as grain farmers rely on reliable rail service to move product to global markets.

“We know that Canadian National understands the important role they play in the grain handling system and expect both sides in the labour dispute to negotiate in good faith to keep trains moving,” Nielsen said in an emailed statement.

The government said the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has been working closely with both parties since June and is currently meeting with them to help secure a deal.

The potential strike comes just days after the Montreal-based company confirmed it will cut jobs as it grapples with a weakening North American economy that has eroded demand for rail transportation.

With files from the Canadian Press

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