NEW YORK — When David Wolach arrived at Columbia University in 1999 to pursue a PhD in philosophy, he didn't anticipate any conflict other than a few departmental squabbles.
"I entered Columbia with the expectation that I would bury my head in my studies," says Mr. Wolach. "I did not expect to be involved in anything political."
But he quickly became dismayed by the conditions of graduate student living. In addition to studying, Wolach worked as a teaching assistant for 20 to 25 hours a week, grading papers and holding office hours. For one semester's efforts, he earned $990.
"I felt that [graduate students] were undervalued and significantly underpaid," he says.
Today, Wolach is an organizer for Graduate Student Employees United, the fledgling union at Columbia now pressing the administration for official recognition. To force the administration's hand, the students are considering a strike in coming weeks.
"We want to be able to negotiate with the university over our working conditions in a meaningful way," says Wolach, "and be guaranteed a living wage."
Union drives have recently become a fact of life at colleges across the country. In public university systems, many have succeeded, aided by sympathetic state legislators and regional labor boards.
At private universities, however, administrations have balked at the idea and fought the trend in courts and on campuses. Currently, New York University is the only private university that has recognized a graduate student union.
The debate hinges on whether the teaching graduate students perform qualifies them as university employees, who have a right to organization and collective bargaining.
"It is Columbia's view that graduate teaching fellows and research assistants are students, not employees," says Alissa Kaplan Michaels, a senior public affairs officer at Columbia. "Teaching responsibilities are part of their academic training," she says, which prepare them to become professors.
Columbia and other universities that have taken a stand against unionization - most notably Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Brown, and Tufts - base their stance on a July 2004 decision by the National Labor Relations Board.
That ruling, which declared unequivocally that graduate students are not employees, overturned a 2000 decision that unequivocally stated the opposite.
The sharp contrast between the two rulings is attributed to the new board members appointed by President Bush after his election in 2000, say scholars of labor law. The three Bush-appointed Republicans on the labor board formed the majority in the 2004 decision that ruled against graduate students, while the two Democrats dissented.
The decision means that the graduate students can no longer appeal to the labor board to mediate, but they still have the right to directly petition university administrations to recognize their unions.
The debate over unionization at Columbia has swirled around campus over the winter. On a recent snowy evening, about 100 graduate students crowded into a meeting room to discuss how to make the administration take their demands seriously.
"We're not going to get a union without a fight," said Adina Popescu, a fifth-year graduate student in the history department and also a teaching assistant.
The students' demands include the official recognition of their union by the administration and an agreement to negotiate a contract, which they hope would include salary guarantees, better health benefits, child care, and increased teacher training.
Union organizers acknowledge that the situation has improved in recent years, with the average graduate student now receiving about $18,000 per year, up from $12,000 in 2000.
But organizers see that pay increase as the first victory of their campaign, rather than a sign of largess on the part of the university.
"There were many, many years of polite conversation that got us nowhere," said Ms. Popescu.
Columbia organizers plan to take action in the coming weeks to further ratchet up the pressure, and say a strike is possible.
Last year, the graduate students went on strike for four weeks at the end of spring semester, causing classes to be cancelled and disrupting final exams.
With union groups at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania also considering protest actions in coming months, the Ivy League may have a tumultuous spring.
Still, Columbia University seems likely to face the first wave of organized dissent.
"The membership will decide our next move," says Wolach. "One way or another, we'll compel the university to sit down at the bargaining table."