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Occupy Internships: A Conversation with Ross Perlin on Under Employment and the Student Debt Crisis

As Occupy marks International Working Day with a push to strengthen labor rights in general, Ross Perlin provides an update on efforts by interns to get paid.

Submitted by: Francesca Rheannon

Posted: May 02, 2012 – 08:45 AM EST

Tags: internships, jobs, economy, occupy wall street, corporate social responsibility


By Francesca Rheannon

May Day came roaring onto the national stage this week, ushered in by a reinvigorated Occupy Movement emerging from its winter hibernation. As International Workers Day, May Day commemorates the 1877 massacre of workers gathered in Chicago’s Haymarket Square to demand the eight-hour day. Observed mostly abroad, 2012 marks the first time Americans came together on May 1 to demand justice for working people.

Occupy and 99% Spring groups held actions across the country to bring attention to economic inequality. Fueled by, among other things, productivity gains that have gone to the top one percent (especially the top tenth of the one percent), while leaving the “99%” out in the cold, inequality has continued its meteoric rise, despite greater awareness brought about by the birth of the Occupy Movement last Fall.

Occupy Demands Labor Rights

The protests focus on a number of labor issues, from the rights of immigrant workers, the assault on workers’ ability to organize and the rise in what is increasingly being called “precarious” labor. The work force is swelling with part time, un-benefitted, and freelance workers -- as well as unpaid labor, as more and more are taking on internships in a desperate attempt to get a leg up over other jobseekers.

Occupy Wall StreetLast year I wrote a review for Talkback of Ross Perlin’s book, Intern Nation, a hard-hitting exposé of the spread of unpaid internships -- a phenomenon that is changing the face of labor, as Perlin claims, and leading to a "highly competitive race to the bottom of the corporate ladder.”

The book has just come out in paperback with a new foreword. I took the opportunity to talk with Perlin about what has happened in the year since the book was first published.

Unpaid Interns Fight Back

Ross Perlin:  A lot has been happening. There have been three high profile lawsuits by unpaid interns in just the last seven months -- class action suits with multiple interns involved. I think there's been a great deal of attention on this issue, more than ever before, along with a whole set of other issues, like student debt, rising tuition and downward mobility for young people.

The Occupy movement last year helped to bring these things into focus and I saw with my own eyes how, at Occupy protests and events, internships were called out as one of the contributors to inequality, so there's the beginning of specific grassroots organizing around changing the internship movement, as well.

Let’s start with the lawsuits. What are they about?

The first lawsuit was last Fall against the makers of the movie Black Swan, a film produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures that was very successful and grossed hundreds of millions of dollars. Two of the interns who worked on it and many others who worked on other Fox Searchlight Productions have brought a suit against the production company.

Unpaid Internships Gain Among Older Workers

One of the interns who brought suit was in his forties. He was an accounting intern doing the books, so he knew who was getting paid; the other intern was coming out of college. So both of those reflect the state of internships today: it's not something that you're just doing for your junior year of college or a summer. It's something that a lot of recent graduates are doing -- and indeed older people in their 30's and 40's and beyond.

Intern NationThe suit is for back wages -- there's not a huge amount of money involved -- but the interns are looking for public awareness around these issues as well.

The next suit was against Harpers Bazaar, a fashion magazine that's part of the whole Hearst empire, so it can't really cry penury and say that it doesn’t have the money to pay minimum wage. In that case, the intern was actually managing a fleet of other interns.

And the final suit, which came recently, was against the Charlie Rose Show by an unpaid intern. All three cases have been handled by one firm, Outten and Golden, which has really stepped forward on this issue. Other lawyers have also been expressing interest and are starting to hear from more interns.

None of the cases have been decided yet, but based on the merits, I think there is a high chance of success for all the interns involved.

Have you found that companies have become more responsible and aware about paying interns?

There's some evidence of embryonic change. One that's made it into the media is the Condé Nast empire, which employs many interns. They are trying to overhaul their internship program to be in compliance with the law.

I think it's too early to tell whether it's going to spread beyond just a small group of employers who are trying to be responsive to what is happening and who see their image as being vulnerable. But there's some evidence of change and I think that if these cases are decided in favor of the interns one could see a domino effect, where a lot more employers could change their policies.

The Student Debt Crisis and Unpaid Internships

You also talked about Occupy and the student debt. It seems the student loan crisis could be the next thing to blow up, like the mortgage crisis did. What’s the link to unpaid internships? 

We just passed 1T Day -- the time period when total student debt in the US crossed $1 trillion. So, the severity of that crisis, at a time when youth unemployment is near its all-time high at about 18 percent, more than a third of all U.S. households led by a person under the age of 35 have a net worth of zero or less, and starting salaries are frozen or falling, according to recent Census Bureau data, it's clear that student debt has reached a crisis level.

It’s connected to rising tuition and to the perceived need that we must have not only a Bachelor's Degree but also advanced degrees to have an advantage in the labor market. Internships play a role in the whole credentialing race that people are finding themselves caught in.

Doubling down on debt to do internships seems to be on the rise and this is leading to a catastrophic level of indebtedness with no apparent way out into any kind of secure employment.

Occupy Protests Culture of Unpaid Employment

Has the Occupy Movement taken up the unpaid internship issue?

The Occupy Movement has recently recognized internships as a political issue and not just an individual story. I saw posters saying “Occupy Unpaid Internships.” It was something that was on the agenda, among other things, at Occupy protests, right in this cluster of issues we've been talking about -- student debt, rising tuition, a sense of downward mobility and, more generally, precarious employment.

unpaid internshipsSpecifically, a working group within Occupy Wall Street, the Arts And Labor Working Group, has taken up this issue. They're trying to raise public awareness, getting people to question the whole culture of unpaid work -- and precarious labor more generally. Many of the people participating have been unpaid interns themselves and people in precarious work circumstances, running the gamut from undocumented workers to freelancers, temps and all forms of precarious and contingent labor.

This issue of precarity, the kind of precarious states in which people find themselves in this economy and the idea that there aren't going to be the stable secure jobs that people have been investing in getting, has driven a lot of the movement.

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