Campaign to end unpaid internships is coming for the White House

It started when two interns for Fox Searchlight Pictures brought a class action suit against their “employers.”


Curt Hopkins


Published Sep 2, 2013   Updated Jun 1, 2021, 7:37 am CDT

After working on the film Black Swan, two interns for Fox Searchlight Pictures brought a class action suit against their “employers,” maintaining that they weren’t interns at all—just unpaid employees. 

Alex Footman and Eric Glatt’s suit, still ongoing, has given birth to dozens more around the country. It’s also inspired a group, the Fair Pay Campaign, which this fall is bringing its social-media-heavy activism to the White House itself, urging the president to stop using unpaid interns. 

The idea behind interning is that students on the cusp of the professional work world will get college credit and on-the-job training in exchange for providing the company reduced-wage or free work. 

The problem is that many interns, like those who sued Fox, have found themselves assigned work like delivering drinks, organizing supply rooms or walking security in parking lots, assignments which could not possibly result in the kind of know-how that would make them more attractive employees. The group, and its allies around the country, have begun to lean heavily on universities, urging them to refuse to post notice of unpaid internships in their employment centers. 

Its latest action, though, is to launch a petition, titled “The White House should pay its interns” on the Partner Petitions platform. “Where can an adult work 50 hours a week for no pay in 2013?” writes the the campaign administrator Roger Hickey. “The White House Intern program.” 

So far the petition has gotten 8,500 signatures.

The Fair Pay Campaign hopes to underline the problems with unpaid internships by highlighting such a program at the center of political power. Many who have been through such programs point out that even if they did not get paid and even if the work they did was either irrelevant to their chosen field or normally done by someone much more advanced in that field, they have made contacts that enabled them to thrive. 

“The White House internship program puts many on a fast track to leadership,” the campaign concedes, “but is only open to the children of the wealthy. No one can work 45 hours a week and then make enough to pay the high rents in D.C.”

Even as the administration emphasizes the issues of increasing educational costs, including mounting student loan rates, 63 percent of graduating seniors are taking up internships, over half of which are unpaid. 

If those internships do not, as the Fair Labor Standards Act requires, provide “training which would be given in an educational environment,” then they may be doing quite a bit of good for the companies and organizations that offer them in the short term by cutting down costs, but no good at all for either the future employees of those organizations or for the organizations themselves in the long run. Not only do you have fewer trained people ready to join a company, but, as Oregon State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian told the Houston Chronicle, “It really drags down the economy by deflating the wages that should be going to workers.”

That’s bad enough if the organization is a car company, but when it’s the entire executive branch of the most powerful nation on earth, it assumes its own special brand of urgency. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. 

H/T Houston Chronicle | Photo by DamnGoodAgency/Flickr

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*First Published: Sep 2, 2013, 10:54 am CDT