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Vol. 77/No. 45      December 16, 2013

Interns file lawsuits against
working for bosses for free
Fed up with working for free, a growing number of interns have been filing lawsuits against employers and winning cases over violation of federal and state minimum wage laws — striking back against one front in bosses’ efforts to drive down the value of labor.

Four months after two intern workers filed suit against Condé Nast, whose publications include The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Vogue, the company announced in October it was ending its internship program.

The suit, which is still pending, was filed by Lauren Ballinger, who was employed over the summer in 2009 as an intern at W Magazine’s accessories and jewelry departments. She often worked 12-hour days or longer for a flat $12 a day. The other plaintiff, Matthew Leib, worked at The New Yorker in 2009 and 2010, receiving between $300 and $500 for a three- to four-month internship, according to Reuters.

The suit, handled by Outten & Golden LLP, states that the interns are “employees” who under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Labor Law must be paid minimum wage.

“Not only is the company violating the law, but it perpetuates inequalities,” Michael Litrownik, an attorney with Outten & Golden, said in a phone interview Dec. 3. Often the only people in a position to intern with no pay “are those who come from families of wealth,” shutting out others from even the possibility of a job.

The suit against Condé was filed days after a June 11 ruling by a New York judge that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated labor laws in using unpaid interns in production of the movie “Black Swan.” According to the suit, more than 100 interns have worked at Fox without pay since September 2005.

Another class action suit brought by intern Lucy Bickerton against Public Broadcasting Service’s “Charlie Rose Show” was also settled at the end of June for $250,000, towards covering unpaid labor of interns employed there.

An intern at Harper’s Bazaar who worked 55 hours per week without pay filed a lawsuit last year against Hearst Corporation.

The magazine Forbes, which bills itself as “The Capitalist Tool,” is now urging employers to stop hiring interns. “Lawsuits against employers by unpaid interns are becoming common and very public,” said an article published Sept. 6. The expenses companies legally open themselves up to, it warned, are “going to be significantly more expensive than just paying them — outright.”

The use of unpaid and exceptionally low-paid intern labor has expanded over the past decades. Giving away your labor under the rubric of an internship has been increasingly promoted as an es-sential way for students and others looking for work, often with hopes of breaking into a “career,” to pretty up their résumes and “get a foot in the door.”

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 50 percent of graduating students in 2008 had some kind of internship while in school, up from 17 percent in 1992. This year companies have increased their use of interns by one-third over 2012, reports a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. University administrators often push this by providing a few college credits for internships.

Prior to the 1970s, such internships were uncommon due to protections won through labor struggles. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, for example, was a concession wrested in big battles from the capitalist class, which was then looking to stem a mass working-class social movement. For the first time in U.S. history, the act set a minimum wage and a legal workweek at 40 hours.

The growing use of intern labor today has developed alongside a deepening crisis of capitalism on a world scale, characterized by high unemployment, increased competition for jobs and a new offensive by bosses against workers’ living standards and working conditions.
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