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Teachers unions' split may spell end to huge school strike

Three of the five unions representing Ontario's 126,000 striking teachers will tell members to return to work in a strong sign North America's largest-ever teachers strike is crumbling, a national television network reported Thursday.

Global Television said that the coalition of unions leading the two-week-old strike had split over whether to continue the walkout and that about 59,000 teachers were ready to abandon their picket lines and go back to work.

The network reported that unions representing women teachers and instructors at French and elementary public schools probably would end their strike, while teachers in Catholic and secondary schools would hold their ground.

The strike, essentially a power struggle between teachers' unions and Ontario's Conservative government over the future of education, has closed almost every publicly funded school and barred 2.1-million students from class in Canada's most populous province.

The reported rift in the teachers' union ranks came just hours after a massive rally by thousands of teachers at the Ontario legislature in Toronto.

The unions said earlier this week they were considering a voluntary end to the strike because the government was pressing ahead with its controversial legislation to overhaul the province's school system despite their protest actions.

The teachers walked off the job Oct. 27 in a protest against government plans to cut spending and take greater control of the province's education system, which has been criticized for mediocre standards despite heavy spending.

If they returned to work, the teachers were expected to continue their protest by working to rule _ refusing to lead extra-curricular activities or work overtime _ and possibly implementing rotating strikes across the province.

The teachers also could challenge the government's legislation in court, but that could take months or even years, and the government's changes would meanwhile be implemented.

The unions and the government have tried repeatedly to negotiate an end to the strike, but the teachers broke off the latest round of talks Tuesday, saying no progress was being made to amend the government's plans.

The unions won a court battle Monday when a judge denied a government request for an injunction to force the teachers back to work.