By Krisztina Than and Krisztina Fenyo
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - At least 10,000 Hungarian students, teachers and parents blocked a Budapest bridge before filling a main square outside parliament on Wednesday in support of teachers fighting for higher wages and teachers sacked for protesting.
Teachers have launched an "I want to teach" campaign and called for civil disobedience to demand higher wages, a solution to a deepening shortage of teachers, and the right to strike.
Wednesday's rally, which started with students forming a chain stretching for kilometres (miles) across Budapest in the morning grew into the biggest anti-government demonstration since nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban's April re-election.
Protesters carrying banners saying "Do not sack our teachers" and "For a glimpse of the future, look at the schools of the present" crammed a Budapest bridge near parliament, blocking traffic amid light police presence.
"I know a lot of really cool and great teachers who do not get enough money for the work and love they put into their profession," said Lujza Lukacs, a 14-year-old student at the blockade, who started secondary school last month.
Trade unions had called a nationwide teachers' strike for Wednesday. After a nationwide teachers' strike in January 2022, the government restricted strike action.
Several teachers were dismissed last week at a Budapest secondary school for joining the protest.
"This is completely unacceptable and absurd," said Andras Farkas, another student at the demonstration, criticising Orban, who studied political philosophy at Oxford, for ignoring the 'cry for help' from teachers.
Orban, who was re-elected for a fourth consecutive term on April 3, faces a mounting challenge as the economy is heading into a recession next year, with inflation in double digits and the forint plumbing successive record lows versus the euro.
The government said it would hike teachers' wages once the European Commission releases EU recovery funding to Hungary which has been withheld amid a rule-of-law dispute.
Parliament speaker Laszlo Kover, a senior member of Orban's ruling Fidesz party, told HirTV on Monday that teachers' wages were lagging average earnings but strikes were not the way to achieve a solution.
"I am sure that strikes won't help... as everyone knows that the level of wages is in no way related to the quality of teaching in the short term," Kover said.
($1 = 421.09 forints)
(Additional reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Michael Perry and Jonathan Oatis)