Why It's Time for Interns to Unionize

Last week, 30,000 summer interns descended on Washington, D.C., to toil for tiny wages in policy shops, think tanks, the White House and, yes, labor unions. Despite the sweat, for many it’s a rewarding experience, helping them develop the skills and street smarts needed for success in life and career. Countless union and civic leaders, and even members of Congress, were once interns themselves. But there’s a dark side too. Interns are at the crest of a wave of unpaid and underpaid contingent labor that increasingly does the work that full-time employees used to do.

Interns employed in D.C.’s web of progressive organizations often spend their days fighting for a living wage, but some don’t make even a dime, much less the current minimum wage. Some organizations offer “opportunities” for college credit or a small stipend, which is not sufficient for them to live and eat in one of America’s most expensive cities. Now, thanks to the organizing work of one savvy group of union interns, the tide may be about to turn.

Recently, a group of interns at the American Federation of Teachers, in a groundbreaking vote, voted to be represented by the Office and Professional Employees International Union, Local 2, forming the first nonmedical intern bargaining unit in the country. While the numbers were small, the victory is significant in much the same way as the Gawker Media editorial staff’s vote to unionize, a few days later. Even conservative millennials are giving unions a second look because unions give workers in unstable positions a real voice on the job. And nowhere is that more important than for contingent workers like adjunct faculty or interns. When interns have a say in their conditions at work, everyone, including their employers and their co-workers who are ongoing employees, reap the benefits.

Interns at the AFT (all of them paid) have been invaluable contributors over the years, doing real work inside nearly every department and often progressing to full-time staff jobs. After the AFT interns first approached me in the summer of 2014, both sides agreed to establish a baseline of mutual respect. We had a genuine and frank conversation that eventually led to their union’s formation. And we hope to build on this partnership at the negotiating table.

The ripple effect is likely to stretch well beyond AFT headquarters. By deciding to organize, our interns sent a message that collective action and collective bargaining is the best way for workers to realize their aspirations. This fight isn’t just about college kids; a growing number of interns left school years ago and are forced to take internships simply because regular jobs aren’t available. Interns whose families can’t send them checks either don’t apply or must work a second job. It’s a story that rings true for the growing numbers of Americans now in some kind of nonstandard employment arrangement. The contingent worker is becoming the norm.

The intern baseline is often far lower. For some employers, interns remain unpaid, which, depending on the type of work and the sector, can be illegal under federal law. The plight of unpaid interns has been highlighted by the work of the Fair Pay Campaign<http://www.fairpaycampaign.com/>, which has pressured employers to pay their interns. Even liberal media publications have been left embarrassed after it was revealed their own interns were working for next to nothing (sometimes while editing stories on the perils of unpaid internships!). But interns deserve more than just a basic wage—they deserve a real voice on the job.

At the AFT, we are simply practicing what we preach.

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