Abolish the Unpaid Internship
March 9, 2012

internship

internship (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Someone must have dosed my morning coffee, because one of Charles Murray’s ideas is making sense:

For one thing, we should get rid of unpaid internships. The children of the new upper class hardly ever get real jobs during summer vacation. Instead, they get internships at places like the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute (where I work) or a senator’s office.

It amounts to career assistance for rich, smart children. Those from the middle and working class, struggling to pay for college, can’t afford to work for free. Internships pave the way for children to move seamlessly from their privileged upbringings to privileged careers without ever holding a job that is boring or physically demanding.

So let the labor unions win this one: If you are not a religious organization and have more than 10 employees, the minimum wage law should apply to anyone who shows up for work every day.

Yes. A hundred thousand times, yes. And not just for the reasons that Murray gives. Even if you already have your desired career as a skilled white collar professional, unpaid internships devalue your labor by taking a portion of it from you and putting in the hands of unpaid workers. This is an old, old managerial trick: find a class of people who can be trained to do some of the same work for cheaper (or, in this case, nothing but college credits), thereby putting downward pressure on the wages of the more experienced employees and forcing them to produce more. It worked for factory owners in the heyday of Taylorism, and it can work for the Huffington Post today.

In fact, the Huffington post actually auctions off some of its internships for thousands of dollars. Doing work for free is now a privilege that will cost you about as much as a used car. And that’s not including transportation, opportunity costs, and all the other expenses of working even an internship you’re not paying for.

So what does all of that get you? Vanishingly little, these days. As unpaid internships have proliferated (and become seemingly obligatory if you want to enter a skilled white-collar profession), they’ve also come to displace the labor of even unskilled, low-wage workers. The most recent (and extreme) example of this phenomenon is perhaps the clothing chain Anthropologie’s “visual display internship,” which is essentially minimum-wage window display work, but without the “wage” part.

Ross Perlin, author of the book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, has written at length about the indignities of uncompensated labor, but his most urgent message is prescriptive: it’s time for unpaid interns to recognize themselves as workers, and organize as workers. From a May 2011 essay in In These Times:

Present, former and future interns need to take action to restore the promise and dignity of work. Until now, young people have ceded everything, asking only for a foot in the door. It’s time to stop spreading the internship gospel. Stop thinking your labor is, was, or will be worthless. Just because you have a student ID and live in a dorm doesn’t mean you’re not also a worker. Identify and organize as interns, and form alliances with like-minded groups such as temps and freelancers. If you’ve moved on, don’t forget the rookie of the workforce, the unpaid kid doing menial and administrative work: the intern.

If we’re ever going to realize Murray’s proposal of abolishing the unpaid internship entirely, it needs to start now with grassroots intern organizing. Occupy Internships was a step in that right direction, but it seems to have stalled. Hopefully it comes back, but in the event that it doesn’t, the next move is probably education. Interns, college students, people who work with interns: talk amongst yourselves and see what can be done in your workplace or across workplaces. Also keep in mind that many of the most-sought after unpaid internships are at ostensibly progressive institutions that like to trumpet their commitment to the interests of regular working folk. Maybe it’s time to remind the heads of those organizations that this shit starts at home.

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The Sum of Organized Labor’s Parts
June 29, 2011

Starbucks Ueno

Image via Wikipedia

Playing off what I was talking about yesterday, this sounds like a sensible way to rejigger traditional labor tactics for the modern economy:

But forget about the past. What can the new I.W.W. tell us about organizing? The Starbucks campaign builds upon 2 key tenets of the old I.W.W. with great relevance to the present. First, it organizes industry wide. Understanding that one shop within the larger Starbucks empire has little meaning, the I.W.W. seeks to build solidarity between workplaces in order to build solidarity and gain additional power.

Second, the Wobblies focus heavily on worker education. One of the real weaknesses of the modern labor movement is a lack of emphasis on educating workers about their own workplace, how unions fit into a larger economic and social justice world, and building workplace democracy. The I.W.W. model is better than the AFL-CIO on all these fronts. Here there is real potential for unions outside the AFL-CIO structure to build quality organizations. The I.W.W. is rebuilding worker education centers and emphasizing larger ideas of workplace justice in its Starbucks campaign.

What most interests me here is the emphasis on worker education, particularly regarding those “larger ideas.” Yesterday I argued that unions need to pitch their indispensability as instruments of procedural justice in the workplace. The good folks at the I.W.W. seem to be thinking along similar, if not identical, lines.

As well they should. This is the stuff of movements, no? If local unions restrict their vision to local issues without articulating a broader philosophy of workers’ rights, then there is no “labor movement.” You’ve just got a bunch of unions all doing their own thing.

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