Faculty strike hits 14 Pennsylvania state colleges

(Reuters) - The faculty at 14 of Pennsylvania's state colleges walked off the job on Wednesday after long-running negotiations on pay and benefits broke down, leaving some 100,000 students in the lurch.

Some 5,500 professors and other workers began the strike at 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT).

Contract talks between the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF) and Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education have been going on for two years.

About 100,000 students at schools from West Chester University near Philadelphia to California University outside Pittsburgh were questioning whether to go to class, as school officials urged them to do despite the strike.

"We are headed to the picket lines," the union said in a statement. "Until the State System negotiates a contract APSCUF believes is fair to students and to faculty, faculty members will be on strike."

The union said it proposed a wage package smaller than those given to other state employees and offered healthcare concessions in excess of $50 million, which the school system rejected.

School system officials said they had offered a new proposal that included raises for permanent and temporary faculty and a healthcare package identical to what other state employees receive in order to avert a strike.

The walkout, which involves full-time and part-time faculty, comes amid a protracted struggle by university graduate student workers across the United States to unionize and receive better pay.

Governor Tom Wolf in a statement urged both sides to return to the bargaining table.

The governor said he had increased funding to the state system by more than $30 million in the past two years to offset cuts made under the previous administration.

"The shortsightedness on both sides is counter to my efforts," Wolf said. "Everyone's top priority should be the students and their families who are counting on an agreement to ensure Pennsylvania continues to deliver on its promise to provide a world-class college education."

In a video posted on Twitter by West Chester University of Pennsylvania Professor Casey Bohrman, a couple dozen people could been seen picketing in front of a school building.

Students and alumni chimed in on social media, some showing support and others poking fun.

"I stand in solidarity with my professors," Lydia Albin wrote on Twitter.

"Bring back chips and pickles or we strike!!@BUCampusDining," Cecilia Nguyen, who identified herself as a Bloomsburg student, wrote.

(Corrects to West Chester University of Pennsylvania from University of Pennsylvania in 12th paragraph)

(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Scott Malone and Tom Brown)