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Opinion: Intern Nation

Poli Psy: On the Public Uses and Abuses of Emotion


Published November 11, 2009 at 8:07 a.m.

In the 1980s, while we were training freelancers to negotiate using the National Writers Union’s model magazine contract, my comrade, the Vermont journalist David Goodman, mentioned that he had a standard reply when editors named a fee: “That sounds a little low to me.” It mattered little what fee the editor suggested; the ploy worked. That’s probably because David was usually telling the truth, and his editors knew it. Some welcomed the chance to wrench a few more bucks out of the boss.

After that, we instituted a new element in the training: a sort of rehearsal, and a cheer for ourselves — some newbies, some veterans — all abysmally underpaid. “Everybody now,” I’d coach. “That sounds a little low to me!” The participants would start doubtfully: “That sounds a little…” repeating the mantra a little louder, a little more confidently each time. It wasn’t easy for these people to stand up for themselves; I often choked on those seven words myself. We were all accustomed to abjection as the quotidian condition of our work lives; we feared losing assignments if we pushed too hard. But we kept trying to drive the peon from our souls.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — only worse. The buck a word I got in 1981, worth about 40 cents today, has been halved and halved again at most publications, especially the e-zines. A new web service called Demand, which supplies articles and videos in response to Google searches, pays writers $15 for a story of a few hundred words and videographers $20 a clip. If rejected, the piece garners a 15 percent kill fee — $2.25.

Writers are not the only ones swallowing big pay cuts. Pilots are working for half their former salaries. In its last negotiations, the United Auto Workers agreed to let GM and Chrysler pay new hires half the $28 an hour that current workers make. A Georgia state worker writing to the New York Times saw wage cuts and mandatory furloughs slice 45 percent from her salary this year.

But if demi-salaries still weigh too heavily on balance sheets in these hard times, there’s a new wage level: zilch. This week, Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote about recent college graduates who, unable to find jobs, are taking internships instead — sometimes one after another — with the aspiration of gaining experience and maybe even paid work down the line. Anya Kamenetz, the author of Generation Debt, has been noticing this trend for a few years, and she sees evidence that the interns’ hopes are tragically misguided. Corporations are creating internships and cutting entry-level positions at increasing rates, she says. In other words, the interns are replacing the very sort of workers they would hope to become.

The losers are not just those interns, though. In a 2006 piece called “Take This Internship and Shove It,” Kamenetz compared unpaid interns to illegal immigrants: “They create an oversupply of people willing to work for low wages, or, in the case of interns, literally nothing.” That hurts all workers.

Internships aren’t only the province of penniless nonprofits or the public sector. Go to any job site, and you will find real estate, PR, IT and other for-profit companies trawling for candidates to do what look like regular jobs, with the minor difference that there is no paycheck — or only the suggestion that there might be one if the person plays his or her cards right. “Internships are unpaid,” notes a post from a New York animation and video design studio. “However, we can arrange mechanisms that will compensate upon attainment of specific goals.” I know a guy in Chinatown who can get you a similar deal.

Yes, some internships train people; some degrees, such as law, require them. Indeed, college students have long complained that only wealthy kids can take the unpaid positions, so the system further advantages the already advantaged. But internships aren’t just for college students — or even for entry-level trainees — anymore. A Detroit events planner called TOYL Events advertises an internship whose “ideal candidate” would have a résumé showing “proven success in meeting and exceeding sales goals, building strong client partnerships, breaking new business and uncovering qualified prospects for new business.” The company’s website cautions candidates not to bother applying unless “[you] are comfortable with working with limited supervision and being supervised by other interns in a group setting.”

This looks like a blatant violation of one of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act’s six criteria for legitimate internships, which stipulates that “trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation.” The law also requires for-profit companies to pay a trainee at least minimum wage.

The FLSA’s criteria boil down to one question, says Vermont Department of Labor legal counsel Dirk Anderson: “Who benefits? Does the program give the intern some kind of valuable job skill or further their education? Or is the employer just getting somebody to do something for free that they normally would pay someone to do?” A lot of the internships I found online appeared to hail from the far side of the law.

You’d think that by the second or third dead-end placement, somebody might get peeved. Yet spokespeople for both the state and federal labor departments told me they aren’t hearing it. At unfairinternships.com, one of the few places where resentment is surfacing, a commenter stated the obvious reason: “Nothing can be done to enforce the labor laws unless the unpaid intern files a complaint. And since those working unpaid internships are doing so to build their résumé and network in their field, they are extremely unlikely to do that. They would be cutting off their noses to spite their faces.”

So there it is, the same worry that held back my writers union trainees from asking an editor for a few more dollars.

But I suspect there’s more silencing these exploited workers than mere terror or the delusion of someday inspiring their bosses to give up the efficiency of free labor for the inconvenience of a wage.

The impediment is gratitude.

Now, gratitude is a virtuous emotion, said to relieve stress and make you happier. So, by all means, be thankful for your cat, your curly hair or your kid’s decision to leave home. But gratitude can be misplaced. I used to tell the trainees that whether you are stuffing tacos or writing deathless prose, no one is doing you a favor by hiring you. You are providing words to fill the publisher’s pages; he needs those pages to make a profit. He is not your benefactor; he is your boss.

I had a slogan then: “Lose gratitude.” And, no matter how beaten down or upbeat I may feel now, I do not mistake affection for an editor or the pleasure of a good assignment well and collaboratively realized for that other one-way, warm fuzziness.

I’d be stupid not to worry about the financial well-being of my employers, not just for myself but because publishing provides a crucial public service. But the wage cutters aren’t all hurting. According to Wired magazine, Demand Media is on track to take in about $200 million in revenue this year; “its most recent round of financing by blue-chip investors valued the company at $1 billion.” Ford’s union voted down a concessionary contract, rejecting in particular a no-strike clause. This caused much consternation among business gurus. A week later, the company announced solidly profitable earnings projections for 2011.

If Ford doesn’t realize those projections, labor, not management, will take the blame. But the blame for what? Isn’t there something screwy about saving a corporation that cannot pay its workers? What is an economy for, anyway?

If Ford founders, people will say, “They should have been grateful for the job, any job.” A 24-year-old employee of a Washington agency I promised not to name — let’s just say it’s an agency whose employees should know better — defended unpaid internships on the same principle: that interns should be thankful for the “great job experience.” The best place to get job experience, I replied, is on a job, the essence of which is the exchange of responsibility for compensation. Take away the latter half of the equation and what’s left is volunteerism. Fine: Pitch in at a soup kitchen. But there’s a word for unpaid labor for someone else’s profit, undertaken under duress (like today’s economy) or false pretenses. That word is slavery.

This young man shares an increasingly common belief: If work provides rewards such as mentorship, public recognition or even satisfaction, money needn’t come into it. Every industry has its way of exploiting this fiction. Mine has blogging, which, the writer is assured, may lead to something.

I’ll tell you what all this unpaid work is leading to: more unpaid work.

And if we keep our mouths shut and end up working nights to support our day jobs, we will have no one to be grateful to but ourselves.

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