Opinion

Unpaid Interns Fight Back

(via canadiananimationresources.ca)
(via canadiananimationresources.ca)

In a big victory for unpaid internship lawsuits, a federal judge ruled last Tuesday that two interns who worked on the movie Black Swan for Fox Searchlight Pictures should have been paid. Federal District Court Judge William H. Pauley III sided with the former interns, Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, “because they were essentially regular employees,” the New York Times reports. It’s not quite be the nail in the coffin for unpaid internships yet, but it’s progress.

Pauley’s ruling allows for unpaid internships, but only under the right circumstances — namely, the ones outlined by the Department of Labor. According to the Times:

Those rules say unpaid internships should not be to the immediate advantage of the employer, the work must be similar to vocational training given in an educational environment, the experience must be for the benefit of the intern and the intern’s work must not displace that of regular employees.

By contrast, Glatt and Footman were production interns on the set of Black Swan, where they did menial chores such as getting lunch, booking travel, answering phones, and whatnot, in addition to which, Glatt was apparently also working as a kind of accounting clerk, according to NPR. Vocational training … not so much.

Then, just two days after the Fox ruling (what timing), two former interns for Condé Nast filed a lawsuit against the media giant. Lauren Ballinger and Matthew Leib, who interned at W Magazine and The New Yorker, respectively, allege that Condé Nast paid them less than minimum wage — less than $1 an hour, in fact — even though they were basically doing the work of paid employees. The pair asked that their case be approved as a class-action lawsuit, which could have big implications for the company.

Earlier this year, Condé Nast ostensibly reformed its internship policy, but as this post at the Atlantic Wire points out, the “reforms” comprise a pretty useless bare minimum, with guidelines like, “Interns are required to do an orientation with HR where they are told to contact them if they are working unreasonably long hours or are mistreated” and “Interns have to receive college credit to be eligible for an internship.”

That second point is, to me, especially troubling, because as you don’t think about until you’re contemplating of interning for credit, the economics of the arrangement are pretty messed up. Students (or their parents) pay for their credits in the form of tuition; this means that when an internship counts toward credit hours, students are essentially paying for it. That may be fine if you’re getting some kind of genuinely educational or invaluable experience wherever you’re interning, but many companies and employers think that college or school credit in name alone gets them off the hook for actually teaching interns anything.

An infographic on the lack of newsroom diversity from 4th Estate (via specialreports.4thestate.net)
An infographic on the lack of newsroom diversity from 4th Estate (via specialreports.4thestate.net)

Unpaid internships are a big problem in journalism and the arts, including the art world, perhaps more so now that the two industries are scrambling to survive both the recession and the technological changes of the 21st century. And in a piece in the Guardian that Hrag linked to in last week’s Required Reading, David Dennis astutely argued that unpaid internships promote a culture of privilege: it’s much harder to gain a foothold in a newsroom or a museum if you can’t afford to work for free because you don’t have parents to support you. As a result, the entire industryboth industries — suffers from a shameful lack of diversity.

A chart showing demographic distribution of art viewers from the Center for the Future of Museums (via culturalpolicy.uchicago.edu)
A chart showing demographic distribution of art viewers from the Center for the Future of Museums (via culturalpolicy.uchicago.edu)

But the problem is that getting rid of unpaid internships won’t be enough. A culture of privilege is what both the media and art worlds have been founded on for at least a century; all unpaid internships do is reinforce the status quo. Even if and when The New Yorker starts paying the people who sort through Shouts & Murmurs submissions, it’ll still be who you know — your friend’s uncle or your mother’s coworker’s acquaintance — that gets the HR people at Condé Nast to acknowledge the existence of your résumé. If the goal is making sure people aren’t being exploited as free labor, which is by all accounts a worthy goal, then drastically reducing unpaid internships is a good start. If the goal is breaking down longstanding race and class monopolies and encouraging a plurality of voices and stories, then it’s going to take a much more concerted effort.

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