What if interns went on strike?
Internships have come to replace entry-level jobs, but without advancement. Why should people work for free when there's no reward?
New York — Imagine what an intern strike might look like. Close your eyes and picture a day without unpaid interns. Phones wouldn't stop ringing, e-mails would not be answered. No one would tweet or update the website, and then, just maybe, someone, somewhere, would remember the dollar value of an honest day's work.
Hard times have hit potential interns. "They are competing with laid off employees with far more experience," writes a paid intern in his New York Times exposé on America's most unreported "job" loss.
Internships have become a hot commodity. So hot, that there are agencies charging a pretty penny to help young hopefuls secure the unpaid jobs of their dreams. And, as our new economy prompts career changes, those collecting unemployment may choose to subsidize their own unpaid labor, as earned income may be deducted from unemployment checks anyway.
Now, I'm not an economist, but when banks get a bailout and the middle class works for free, I wonder who really benefits?
Still, it was not until I read that Pizza Hut was looking for a Twitter intern that I knew something had to be done to save the world from these unpaid internships, which have come to replace entry-level jobs.
The verb "intern," once used to describe the eager toil of wealthy college students who wouldn't miss a buck or two, has taken on its former more sinister meaning. Intern: to restrict to or confine within prescribed limits, as prisoners of war, enemy aliens, or combat troops who take refuge in a neutral country.
As a writer, I am trapped, interned if you will, by internships. Every writing job has been delegated to a stigmatized workforce of interns who, even if paid, must know their subemployee rank on the food chain.
"Volunteer" was a term once used to describe free laborers, but perhaps it was too aggrandizing. Volunteers work for free out of the goodness of their hearts and are praised in songs with dramatic lyrics like: "If you want someone who's willing/ To lay down their hearts/ Someone to dry your tears/ I'm here/ I volunteer."
Or the more whimsical, "Let's Hear It for the Volunteers," which includes a verse about Kathy in the yellow pants who writes grants and loves music but can't dance. This rousing volunteer anthem ends with a joyful take on unpaid labor, saying, "It ain't for money, 'cause they work for free," and that it's "all for the music and the company. Let's hear it for the volunteers!"
A positive take on volunteering is nearly universal. On YouTube, a young Obama campaign volunteer can be seen singing "All for you Barack," an anthem he wrote to sanctify his difficult yet rewarding work on the campaign trail.
Interns, on the other hand, are often the butt of jokes. Monica Lewinsky didn't help matters, and I haven't heard a rousing intern anthem ever. Still, in the unpaid workforce, the title of "intern" has eclipsed "volunteer."
Interns are valuable. And as part of the workforce, they are expected to do many of the same tasks that professionals do (along with the menial jobs that no one cares to do).
Many people have, at some point in their lives, worked without pay. Some start businesses, others devote time to charities or nonprofits, and still more apprentice in lucrative mechanical fields. I am all for entrepreneurs, mechanics, and bleeding hearts.
However, conceiving of the unpaid internship as a means to secure paying jobs is as archaic as the corporate ladder model of employment itself. We no longer live in a society where hard work at one company ensures that we will someday reach the zenith of the American dream.
I recently got a letter from the government stating that the Social Security plan I have paid into may not be fully solvent to greet me when I need it. People say that the young must pay their dues, but if we are not even going to collect on the ones we pay literally, should we also work for free?
My philosophy is this: If you don't pay me, I will not work. I encourage you to join me. Think of this as a new and radical form of union organizing. In the 1930s, we fought for a minimum wage and, years later, we will stand together and refuse to work for free.
Elizabeth Daley is a freelance journalist. She will work for money.