How We Can Use the White House's Own Petition Initiative to Get It to Pay Its Interns

The White House, and its many offices, “hire” hundreds of unpaid interns, associates, and even elderly volunteers, each year.

The most popular White House petition in the platform’s history had grand aspirations, hordes of supporters, and well, “the force” to be reckoned with. Unfortunately for the tech-idealistic staff at the White House’s We The People initiative, the petitioners were not looking for real accountability—they just wanted to turn the White House in to a Death Star.

The crew at White House responded in good humor, everyone had a nice laugh, and the petition platform returned to obscurity—where thousands of people launch petitions from the mundane (BBQ!) to the ambitious (Snowden). What links all these requests together is their common failure—only a tiny percentage of petitions reach the 100,000 signature benchmark needed to earn a response from the administration, and even fewer will change administration policy.

With a petition I started on October 2nd, I hope I’ve found the perfect issue for the medium: unpaid labor in the White House itself. Unlike many of the We The People petitions, this could be the ideal venue for a citizen-driven, technologically facilitated policy fix. It’s poised, I think, to represent a victory for participatory politics for a number of reasons.

First, unlike a Death Star transformation or labeling all GMO foods, paying the workers in the White House is directly under their control. The White House, and its many offices, “hire” hundreds of unpaid interns, associates, and even elderly volunteers, each year to work on tasks from opening letters to the President to researching policy—and yes, reading petitions. Currently, they do this all for free—in direct contradiction to the President’s rhetorical insistence on “fair pay for a hard day’s work” and his administration’s support of a minimum wage, equal pay, and stronger labor benefits and protections. Denying those rights to laborers in their own office is a choice under their control—one that can be influenced by public opinion.

Second, since the White House has repeatedly refused media requests to comment on their labor practices, the petition is perfectly suited: reaching 100,000 signatures requires that the administration issue a statement. That would, for the first time, require the White House to verbalize its reasoning—or lack thereof—for continuing exploitative and discriminatory labor practices in its own office. Moreover, it would have to explain this justification not just to a single reporter, but to over 100,000 signatories, requiring a statement that will stand up to widespread scrutiny.

Third, there is a decent probability of successful change. Some other issues have also benefited from being under the White House’s purview and received public recognition, but their asks have been too high. With this issue, the necessary labor it takes for the Executive to function would be not be terribly difficult to finance. The summer intern program, for example, would require only $600,000 if all interns were paid a decent living stipend. The program could be financed for three years for less than the cost of two Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicles, the trucks made famous in recent images of police militarization and subject to a new review ordered by President Obama.

Finally, this issue represents a perfect opportunity for the President to “lead by example”—as he has stated in regard to expanding the minimum wage for other populations, like federal contractors. Changing the way the highest office in the land treats its own workers will surely affect how offices all across the nation do so. It could issue a strong and visible statement that starts to alter the increasingly worrisome growth of the “intern economy.”

The designers of the We the People platform had high hopes that the interface would allow citizens to take their complaints directly to the top: now it’s mostly known for joking or impossible petitions. But a victory is possible: petitioning the White House on its own labor practices is a unique opportunity to capitalize on the platform and actually get something done.

We need 150 signatures to get the petition publicly listed on the site—and 100,000 to mandate a White House response. When that happens the administration will be forced to publicly confront its labor practices—and either submit a statement on why it will remain the same, or hopefully why things are bound to change.

This is a doable project where every participant will share in the victory—and these days, we could all use one of those. We might not be able to turn the White House in to the Death Star, but we can certainly use the same tool as a force for good.

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Stephen Lurie writes about politics, labor, education, and justice. Find him at @luriethereal.