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Now interns are unionizing, too

With victories at Gawker and the fight for $15, labor picks up steam among the youths.

Interns, now organizable. (Pete Souza/White House)
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Of all workplace positions, perhaps none is quite so exploitable — at least stereotypically — as the intern. Sometimes paid, but often not, they're asked to perform duties nobody else wants to do in exchange for that essential first line on a resume indicating “experience.”

Haley Quinn, a 20-year-old student at New York University, thought life could be a lot better for the nation’s youngest professionals. Last summer, while interning at the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C., she did what seemed natural in that environment: Organizing her co-workers.

It's of a piece with the union victory at youthful Gawker, and amidst nationwide organizing among youngish low-wage workers — who already favor unions in greater numbers.  It’s starting to look like the labor movement might be having a millennial moment.

But wait, an intern union? Of people who only stick around for a few months at a time?

“There are turnover challenges, but that’s not unique to internships,” says Quinn, noting that plenty of professions — retail, restaurants — have people cycling in and out. She’s the only person left from the cohort she started with last summer, which meant she had to talk to each new person about the project.

Still, it wasn’t a hard sell. AFT’s interns make $12 an hour if they're undergraduates and $14 an hour if they’re graduate students — less than the $15 that the labor movement has been calling for.

“I’m still in school, but a lot of  us aren’t still in school,” Quinn says. “You can't pay rent and all of your expenses on what interns make. And in a lot of places, internships are more of an entry-level position.”

Besides, interns at a labor union come pre-prepped for this kind of thing, and management was extremely sympathetic, so it wasn’t difficult. Last week, 15 AFT interns voted to join the Office and Professional Employees International Union, becoming what they’re pretty sure is the first intern union outside a medical context in the United States (hospital staff unions sometimes include interns, but it’s also a more formalized step in the training process).

And the interns don’t want to stop there. "We're hoping actually that this could be the beginning of an effort to organize interns at other locations,” says Lou Wolf, an organizer with OPEIU, listing off government agencies and large media organizations as potential targets. “The economy in many ways has shifted to low-paying or no-paying jobs, particularly for the entry level, with the result being that people in their 20s and 30s are finding it difficult to get their feet on the ground and accumulate a little wealth.”

Unions are well-equipped to deal with that kind of problem. And the legal landscape may be tipping in their favor. Here’s why: Only paid interns are technically eligible to join unions. If they’re not paid, they’ve already acknowledged that they are receiving educational benefits in lieu of a salary, which means they're not covered by the same laws. (That’s the argument that universities have made in fighting the rights of graduate students and athletes to unionize, with varying degrees of success.)

But the intern market has started to change, with the wave of lawsuits that has forced companies like Viacom and NBC Universal to pay out multimillion-dollar settlements to former interns who provided employee-like services. In the future, more companies and institutions will probably start to pay their interns to avoid liability. (And despite fears that some would just drop their intern programs all together, that so far doesn’t appear to be happening.)

Still, law isn’t the only barrier to unionization. Eric Glatt, who successfully sued Fox Searchlight for not paying him while he worked as an intern on the 2010 Natalie Portman film "Black Swan," says the other one is social.

“I think the challenges to intern unionizing turns on the fact that interns are, almost by definition, not sticking around for a long time,” says Glatt, who just graduated from Georgetown Law School and is headed to work for the American Civil Liberties Union. “And there’s a lot of pressure to internship arrangements that prioritize getting a great recommendation from your boss over the immediate return of being paid for your labor.”

But it only takes one class of interns to organize a workplace — in theory, each successive class will continue to be in the union. The AFT interns are now working on their contract proposal to AFT management, which they want to enshrine many of the benefits they enjoy already, like educational opportunities and professional development. Then, Quinn says, it can be used as a model for other campaigns — which would be as good for unions as for young people themselves.

"It’s so important that young people are involved,” Quinn says. “Giving them a voice at the table is so important for the labor movement right now.”

In the mean time, more rights may be on the way for all interns, paid or not. At the end of April, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation that would extend protections against discrimination and sexual harassment to interns, which they don't currently enjoy.