Progressive? Pay your interns.

Stephen Lurie
Apr 13, 2014 · 11 min read

When unpaid internships were a labor innovation, more than two decades ago, ignorance of their unhealthy defects might have been permissible. In 2014, it’s common knowledge that unpaid internships violate the commitments that many—specifically liberals and progressives—espouse on a daily basis. They exclude low-income youth, entrench existing systems of wealth, disproportionately affect women, lack protections against discrimination and sexual harassment, are prone to nepotism (and again), and of course, fail to pay a living wage. The contradiction between liberal values and unpaid internships, if not clear on face value, has already been spelled out extensively by the left and, recently, the right. At Vice, Charles Davis excoriated liberal media outlets for the practice; at Salon Michael Lind tore down the White House’s hypocrisy; at The Atlantic I denounced the exploitation common in the Senate. As the minimum-wage debate returns, conservative outlets like Fox, the Washington Free Beacon and old Fred Thompson have found the irony of pro-minimum-wage-Dems and their unpaid interns to be useful political fodder. ProPublica, the non-partisan investigative journalism outfit, is running a whole project on the intern economy. At this point, it’s certainly no secret that (1) unpaid internships contradict liberal values, and (2) if you’re an employer, you’re at risk of getting called out.

Yet, the organizations that should so clearly understand this state of events—the liberal, progressive, and pro-labor groups around the country—have either stuck their head in the sand or willfully dispatched their own commitments when it comes to their offices.

The contradiction between unpaid internships and non-profit missions to support fair labor, women’s rights, and economic justice is so clear, it shouldn’t need to be called out.

This article shouldn’t have to exist, and I almost didn’t write it: but since liberal leaders continue to practice what they condemn—and subvert economic fairness to economic expedience in their own operations—it has to be done.

Here are the worst offenders, an incomplete list.


Fair Labor


This one’s pretty obvious: it’s not fair labor to demand work equivalent of an employee for none of the pay. That’s why, according to guidelines from the Department of Labor, it’s illegal to “derive immediate advantage” from an unpaid intern. Under that directive, pretty much every unpaid internship out there violates the law (or, perhaps worse, doesn’t have any applicable law). Of course, there are skeptics of labor regulations—regulations that ensure workplace safety, prevent exploitation, discrimination and reward workers with a living (or minimum) wage. But the fair labor acolytes not only insist on these regulations, they propose new ones, in almost every other situation. Free and unprotected labor, as long as they are labeled “interns”, seems to be okay with the following organizations.


National Employment Law Project

The organization, which works to “create good jobs, strengthen upward mobility, enforce hard-won worker rights,” seems to have concluded that interns are the exception. They offer a stipend for one intern in one of their three offices: the others “must come with their own funding for the summer.” Oh, and this is the organization behind raisetheminimumwage.com.

International Labor Rights Forum

NOTE: Prior to posting this section, the ILRF website read: “We welcome inquiries for federal work-study positions or unpaid/credit-based summer internships on an ongoing basis.” After publication, a spokesperson for ILRF contacted me to note that the information on the website was incorrect: ILRF does not host unpaid interns. The website has since been corrected to read:

“We welcome inquiries for federal work-study positions and from students receiving funding from their universities or through Fulbright or similar programs.”

I’m glad ILRF got in touch to issue note the correction. Their program seems to be a good example of how non-profit organizations with tight budgets can welcome young talent while ensuring some amount of fair labor: by requiring outside institutional funding for interns that is available to all (in the case of work-study, to those that qualify). Now the website has been corrected too, when it might not have otherwise.

Free the Slaves

They also have unpaid labor. We can leave it at that.


Women’s Rights


Though slightly less obvious hypocrisy, the gendered ramifications of unpaid internships have been no less covered and are just as significant. In short, unpaid internships disproportionately affect women (up to ¾ are women) and thus disproportionately marginalize and hamper their empowerment. Moreover, in most states, unpaid interns aren’t due protections from workplace sexual harassment. If these issues hadn’t gained so much attention recently, ignorance of the gendered effect of internships could be excusable. Instead, a wide variety of outlets across the spectrum have demonstrated the costs of unpaid internships on women, from the Huffington Post to The Atlantic and Dissent Magazine. Famous women’s advocate Sheryl Sandberg came under intense criticism last year when an editor advertised an unpaid internship for her Lean In organization, a move seen as a direct betrayal of her cause. At least in that case, the high profile scrutiny led to some back tracking: these other organizations didn’t get the memo.


EMILYs List

The pro-choice women PAC has over 2 million members, and donated almost 5 million dollars in the last election cycle, and Open Secrets rates them as a “Heavy Hitter”: there’s no shortage of resources. But that doesn’t mean they shell out a dime to their interns. The group seeks to “ensure that women have equal opportunities at home, in the workplace, and in the public sphere” but unpaid internships do just the opposite: more women take them, and they are less likely to lead to jobs. For an organization with major focus on “equal pay,” “women in the economy,” and “progress for the minimum wage,” retaining unpaid internships—many bound to be taken by women—is an embarrassment.

National Organization for Women

NOW has been “taking action for women’s equality since 1966” according to their slogan, but also “offers volunteer, unpaid, internship opportunities, both full and part time, throughout the year.” The organization also requires a “minimum of 3 days per week” and says that “full time interns are preferred”—so you’re probably not going to have time to pick up a part-time job that actually does pay. An intern there might look forward to working to “eliminate discrimination and harassment in the workplace”—without those protections—or focus on NOW’s Priority Issue of “Economic Justice,” ironically fighting for “livable wages, job discrimination, [and] pay equity.”

National Women’s Law Center

This organization conducts “research, analysis, and advocacy” on a host of the “most important issues facing women and their families,” using law and policy to seek reforms. Given that particular focus, they should be well aware of the problematic ruling in October 2013, that concluded New York City’s Human Rights Law didn’t apply to an intern plaintiff in a sexual assault suit. Or, perhaps, some higher-brow readers caught wind of the widely shared article by Madeleine Schwartz in Dissent, on unpaid interns as the new housewives, that concluded that appealed directly to NWLC’s model. “Legal recourse is crucial,” Schwartz wrote, “for as long as our definition of work excludes the work that people do now, broader change for precarious workers will be unsuccessful.” Change will also remain unsuccessful as organizations like NWLC—“ensuring women are paid fairly…expanding opportunities for women in non-traditional fields…improving the quality of jobs for low-wage working women”—disregard their message in their own offices. All interns are unpaid, and the offer of college credit doesn’t make up for wages, or the wage gap.


Equality and Anti-Discrimination


Unpaid internships don’t just affect those who take them: they disadvantage those who can’t. The only people who can take unpaid internships, in fact, are people who have economic wealth significant enough to fund to work for free. In intern-heavy cities like Washington, DC or New York, that means shelling out thousands of dollars in travel, housing, and food so that you have a chance to work. That’s not to mention the rarer, even more nefarious and ludicrous practice of auctioning off internship openings to the highest bidder, often at the most competitive companies. In both the common and celebrity version, the story is the same: low-income youth need not apply.


Though there are some outside grants available, and the questionable option of taking a loan, neither make up for the systemic advantage unpaid internships give to people already with means. As Helaine Olen writes in The Guardian, unpaid internships mean:

“Rich students gain their employment experiences in the executive offices of the Gap, while poor kids are more likely to start out with minimum-wage, service-sector jobs that offer little in the way of security or job growth. Guess which is thought to lead to better professional advancement?”

It’s not that hard to guess, and for organizations specializing in equality, anti-discrimination, and economic justice, the answer should be particularly troubling.

United for a Fair Economy

Though this smaller organization is based out in Boston (not NYC or DC), it still considers itself a national movement and still doesn’t pay its interns. The smaller budget might deflect some blame that mega-organizations like EMILYs List face, the mission of this group makes their staffing policy hard to ignore. “United for a Fair Economy challenges the concentration of wealth and power that corrupts democracy, deepens the racial divide”—except for the internships they offer which do exactly that; They “support social movements working for a resilient, sustainable and equitable economy”—but not in their office; UFE promotes “jobs with dignity and living wages, where workers have the democratic right to organize and share the wealth produced by their labor.” Oops. In fairness, UFE will provide a free monthly MBTA pass for interns working more than 20 hours a week. Transit passes, though, won’t ever “challenge the concentration of wealth and power” like real wages will.

Institute for Policy Studies

The Institute is “Washington’s first progressive multi-issue think tank” and claims to have “served as a policy and research resource for visionary social justice movements for over four decades.” Their research and advocacy portfolio focuses on peace, justice, and the environment, with a particular interest to “promote true democracy and challenge concentrated wealth [and] corporate influence.” With specific projects titled “Inequality and the Common Good” and the “New Economy Working Group,” IPS has a demonstrated interest in the progressive economic agenda. As the group responsible for Inequality.org, IPS should also understand how programs like unpaid internships entrench and increase inequality by providing essential work opportunities to the already fortunate. They even host an article by Eric Glatt on “Illegal Interns” on their site, describing how “unpaid internships have metastasized into a labor market scourge.” The Institute offers a transit stipend, but all internships are unpaid.

Center for Constitutional Rights

CCR offers two types of internship, the prestigious “Ella Baker Summer Internship Program” for aspiring lawyers and lawyers, and other, regular internships for all education levels throughout the year. That the regular ones are unpaid isn’t that surprising. The named, selective program doesn’t come with its own funding either though. The site says that candidates should seek funding elsewhere, and that “CCR may be able to provide funding only for those who have demonstrated that they have been diligent in seeking alternate funds but have been unsuccessful.” Offering a hope of funding is positive, but the “may” certainly isn’t reassuring. The posting for these internships, of course, comes only a few clicks from CCRs mission to “advance the law in a positive direction, to empower poor communities and communities of color, to guarantee the rights of those with the fewest protections and least access to legal resources.” Interns, of course, lack those legal protections, and poor applicants for internships (often from “communities of color”) lack the financial security to take an unpaid position. Paid internships might not be a constitutional right, but unpaid ones certainly undermine the spirit of the Center for Constitutional Rights.


Bottom Line


There are thousands of non-profit organizations throughout America that fight admirably and righteously for liberal, progressive, and labor-friendly causes. Of those organizations that offer internships—a crucial entryway for new advocates and activists—the vast majority don’t pay. That might seem (or might have seemed) like an innocuous human resources issue, but in today’s intern economy, it is a position with far ranging impacts on those that get the opportunities, and those that are excluded. For organizations that profess to empower women and individuals of lower income and to attack systems of inequality and wealth, unpaid internships not only violate their own code but also legitimizes the practice beyond their offices. If these groups won’t put principle over convenience, why should a for-profit company or a government agency?


Indeed, the reason these groups don’t pay their interns—to the extent it is a calculated choice—is the same as those other entities: economic expediency. It’s no secret that non-profit organizations run on notoriously tight budgets, and free labor is a great opportunity to add value at zero cost.

Yet, the logic of economic expediency is the same logic that underpins the abusive practices of corporations and governments the world over: it is the preference of the bottom line over human dignity.

The non-profit fields represented in this list know that well: it’s what they decry when opponents resist fair pay for women, a living wage, labor protections, affirmative action, and egalitarian policy. Due to economic constraints, liberal organizations have accepted this compromise of their values. As the debate over unpaid internships becomes more public, though, their endorsement of the practice doesn’t just besmirch their own record, it performatively influences the future of a nationwide labor practice.

Those willing to entrench their position against calls to pay their interns will note, that unlike for-profit organizations, they aren’t doing anything illegal (and unfortunately that’s true). They’ll also note that there is is a long history of volunteering for social, progressive causes: and that’s certainly alirght.

There needs to be an understanding, though, that internships are a structural labor relationship that far exceeds free-time volunteering. More and more, it is an essential gatekeeper to employment, the first step for newcomers to the workforce to gain contacts and a point of entry. As they are often full-time, they are labor substitutes rather than labor supplements—unlike traditional volunteering.

Internships are now an institutional feature of the economy: when they are unpaid, they are institutional perpetuations of unequal wealth, support wage depreciation, and operate in near lawlessness.

That might be alright for some, but it’s an embarrassment for the organizations that lead this country’s progressive change. Liberal leaders, like those named and shamed here, know better—and at the current moment, have an opportunity to lead important labor reform.

It’s past time they step up.


Note: This piece appears here because it could not appear elsewhere. A draft of this piece was sent to many leading progressive outlets and none were interested in running it, or responding. Hopefully this is because the “writing about interns” market feels saturated from an editorial standpoint—not because of a fear of attacking the left from the left or alienating associates at these organizations.

Self-criticism, as we should know, is essential to progress.


Images: DOL, Bloomberg, Business Insider, Give a Grad a Go.

    Stephen Lurie

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