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Vol. 75/No. 30      August 22, 2011

Growth of interns part of
attack on worker solidarity
(front page)
The use of interns by private corporations, government agencies, and so-called nonprofits has stepped up since the sharpening of the world capitalist crisis in 2008.

Lance Choy, director of the Career Development Center at Stanford University, told the New York Times that in 2010 the number of unpaid internships on Stanford’s job board was more than triple the number two years before. Phil Gardner, research director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute, says the number of college graduates taking internships “ballooned” in 2010, according to Reuters.

“Christmas may be the most wonderful time of year for many, but for managers, it’s summer that often brings the greatest joy,” wrote Business Week’s Bruce Weinstein in his column in May 2010. “After all this is when millions of college students and recent graduates offer their services for little or no pay. What could be better for business than voluntary unpaid labor?”

The capitalist class in the United States has expanded its use of interns massively over the past two decades, as students are pressured to apply as a way to pretty up their “résumés” and increase their chances for a better-paying job in the future.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 50 percent of graduating college students in 2008 held some kind of internship while in school, up from 17 percent in a 1992 Northwestern University study. More than a million people are estimated to work as interns each year.

“Our survey found that 48 percent of student interns are unpaid,” Edwin Koc, director of research at NACE, said in a phone interview, “including 38 percent of those” at what he called “profit-making companies.” NACE works with both corporations and universities to promote internships.

A 2010 study by Intern Bridge, Inc., found that 48 percent of government internships are unpaid, and 57 percent of those at foundations, “NGOs,” universities, and so on.  
Pushes down wage levels
The growing number of unpaid and low-paid interns pushes down wages across the country, already falling due to record long-term unemployment and employers’ use of temporary agencies to avoid hiring permanent workers.

A 1947 Supreme Court decision set six criteria for unpaid labor of “trainees” to be legal under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Training must be “similar” to that in a vocational school and be “for the benefit of the trainee.” Trainees must not “displace regular employees,” and bosses supposedly should derive “no immediate advantage.”

By giving interns academic credit, universities provide cover to employers to claim they meet at least some of these criteria. Meanwhile, universities often charge thousands of dollars in tuition, while providing no teachers or classroom space.

In April last year, after a spate of news articles reporting illegal practices around interns, the Department of Labor promised stiffer enforcement, at least for what it calls “for-profit” employers. “There aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” said Nancy Leppink, acting director of the Wage and Hour Division.

Such statements troubled university administrators. An April 2010 letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis urged “great caution in changing an approach to learning that is viewed as a huge success.” It asked her to “reconsider” regulation of internships. The letter was signed by 13 university presidents, from New York University to the University of California.

Not to worry. One year later there’s no sign of even token enforcement. In an e-mail reply to the Militant, John Chavez, Boston/New York regional spokesperson for the Labor Department, wrote that “it’s my understanding that the Wage and Hour Division does not track any enforcement data related to the employment of interns.”

“We have not received a single complaint from an intern about violations of the law,” another department spokesperson said in a telephone interview.

The Fair Labor Standards Act was adopted by Congress and signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938. It was a concession by the capitalist class in hopes of stemming the mass working-class-led social movement of the 1930s that was fighting to defend the interests of working people.

For the first time, the law set a minimum wage and legal workweek at 40 hours, as part of establishing “fair labor standards in employment” in “interstate commerce.” Farm labor, retail and restaurant employees, domestic workers, and others were not covered by the law.

The initial minimum wage of 25 cents an hour was half what most workers were getting on federal work projects in the north, themselves miserably paid.

An editorial in the June 11, 1938, Socialist Appeal—a newsweekly produced and sold by communist workers in the United States at the time—noted that the new law provided “an abysmally low wage level” and was “hedged around with restrictions, modifications and exceptions.”

In 1995 Congress exempted itself from the law when hiring interns.
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