Make no mistake, the interns are fighting back.
Last month, a federal judge in New York ruled that unpaid interns on the movie “Black Swan” should have received at least the minimum wage. The judge also allowed a class-action suit to go forward against the Fox Entertainment Group, the parent company of the film’s production division.
Gutsy and improbable when it was first filed two years ago, the “Black Swan” case was a pioneering direct challenge to the internship system. Now more than 15 other lawsuits have followed in its wake, according to an online database maintained by ProPublica, the investigative journalism Web site.
The companies being sued operate in a wide range of intern-heavy industries. Global brands, famous television and fashion personalities, multinational subsidiaries flush with profits — these are some of the employers that have refused to pay young workers at least $7.25 an hour. How have they done this for so long?
The federal law is clear: if internships at profit-making companies are to be unpaid, they must foster an educational environment. (The rules are different for nonprofit and governmental agencies.)
Good internships are out there — ones that pay, ones that train and ones that lead to real jobs at the end. But many others fall far short — and more people are taking action. “I think enough people have finally seen what a trap this has become,” said Eric Glatt, one of the victorious interns in the “Black Swan” case.
In addition to filing lawsuits, interns are organizing beyond the courtroom, using some of the same strategies as fast-food workers, freelancers and various groups of part-time, temporary or guest workers.
For example, two students at New York University recently created a petition demanding that the university stop advertising unpaid internships on campus; more than a thousand people signed in a matter of days.
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“There are lots of people who care about this issue; there’s a lot of anger about this issue. We want to build a movement,” said Mikey Franklin, co-founder of the new Fair Pay Campaign, who plans to hire professional organizers to galvanize interns in hubs like New York and Los Angeles. He hopes for support from organized labor, whose leaders, he said, are waking up to the issue’s mobilizing potential.
And Intern Labor Rights, a New York-based group formed out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, is forming a coalition with like-minded groups in Canada, Britain, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Austria. In all of those countries, campaigns to make internships fairer are also under way.
What interns are demanding is hardly a mystery: respect for their work. In short, it’s time to start envisioning and putting into practice a healthy, effective internship culture. For better or worse, pay is the fundamental currency of respect in every modern economy. Unless it’s a bona fide training or volunteer position, an internship should be paid, open to all and transparently advertised — and should never result in the displacement of other employees.
Training, mentoring, experience and opportunity are particularly vital for interns, which is precisely why many of them are willing to work longer, harder and for lower wages, running errands and doing other menial tasks. Interns know that they’re starting at the bottom, but they need employers to meet them halfway.
Those who can’t afford to work without pay are eager for the chance to break into the intern-heavy fields that are now all but closed to them. The demand for meaningful career options — coupled with a willingness to work hard for them — has never been stronger.
And yet, for too many people, internships have become slightly shameful, with overtones of menial work, immaturity, parental dependence and being stuck.
As long as the current system remains stubbornly in place, expect the intern revolt to continue.