LISBON Thousands of teachers across Portugal walked away from final exams held at secondary schools on Monday to protest against planned spending cuts in education, leaving many pupils unable to take the tests, unions said.
The cuts are among the most recent austerity measures proposed by Portugal's center-right administration to meet the fiscal targets of an EU/IMF bailout. Portugal is in the third year of its worst economic recession since the 1970s and unemployment is at a record 18 percent.
Anti-austerity protests have been largely peaceful and more subdued than those in Greece and neighboring Spain but the country has seen a rise in rallies and strikes in recent months.
After talks with the teachers' unions collapsed over the weekend, the education ministry deployed replacement teachers to help invigilate and some schools bundled classes together in gyms or canteens so that the exams could go ahead.
Many pupils were unable to take the tests but in some schools they chanted and waved placards with slogans of solidarity for their striking teachers.
Mario Nogueira, the head of 52,000-strong Fenprof teachers' union, said 90 percent of teachers took part in the strike and that some schools had canceled Monday's exam. There are around 100,000 teachers in Portugal's state education system.
The education ministry said the strike affected less than a third of all pupils and rescheduled their exams for July 2.
Nogueira told reporters the union wanted to negotiate a solution to avoid pay cuts and a forced "mobility regime" whereby teachers may be forced to accept postings far from home or resign when their schools are merged with others as part of the spending cuts.
Exams are scheduled to go on for the coming weeks and union leaders have not ruled out more walk-outs.
Teachers are also protesting against a government decision to increase working hours for all public sector workers by one hour to an eight-hour day.
On June 27, unions will stage a general anti-austerity strike to further pressure the ruling coalition, whose popularity has dwindled after it enacted the largest tax increase in Portugal's modern history this year.
(Reporting By Andrei Khalip; Editing by Raissa Kasalowsky)