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OTTAWA, March 21 (Reuters) - Canada's labor minister on Friday urged Canadian National Railway (CN) and union leaders to seek voluntary arbitration to avert a strike at the country's biggest railroad, which she said would damage the economy.
On Thursday, members of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference union narrowly voted against a tentative agreement reached with the company last month after the government said it would use back-to-work legislation if necessary to keep the railway operating.
Labor Minister Kellie Leitch said she was "disappointed" by the vote result.
"I urge both parties to consider the best interests of all Canadians and avoid a work stoppage by sending their outstanding issues to voluntary arbitration," she said in a statement.
"A work stoppage at CN would have damaging effects on our economy - negatively impacting hardworking Canadians across the country, including grain farmers in the Prairies, auto workers in Ontario, and forestry workers in Quebec."
CN Rail, in a statement after the vote, said it would propose binding arbitration to reach a settlement and requested a union response by the end of Friday.
The dispute comes as CN Rail struggles to move 5,500 cars of grain a week to cope with a massive backlog from a record-shattering harvest in 2013, exacerbated by disruptions caused by an extremely cold winter. (Reporting Louise Egan; Editing by Sophie Hares)