Ragging on media companies for not paying their interns is nothing new these days, but The Nation has found an unlikely critic—in Walmart.
Back in June, the venerable progressive weekly posted an online petition calling on Walmart—the nation's largest employer by a tremendous margin—to give its workers a raise. (Employees, on average, receive $8.81 an hour, while Walmart reportedly raked in $17 billion last year.) Yesterday morning, Walmart's senior director of communications, Steven Restivo, finally fired back in an email that's been printed (or at least excerpted) on The Daily Beast. Restivo hits hard, pointing to The Nation's storied internship program as proof of hypocrisy:
The Nation—“America’s leading progressive print and online magazine”—recently encouraged its readers to sign an open letter demanding that Walmart increase wages to $12/hour and this article called our company one of the “biggest abusers of low-wage labor.”
In an ironic twist, ProPublica recently reported that starting this fall, “interns at the Nation Institute will be paid minimum wage for the first time in the history of the 30-year-old program.” As ProPublica noted, The Nation has been paying its full-time interns a weekly stipend of $150 per week—less than the current federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour.
Factually, that's mostly true. The Nation has actually been paying interns $175 a week, according to its listing, plus an unlimited Metrocard (which would otherwise cost about $112 a month), and interns are compensated for any writing they do for the publication. Still, that's no living wage. And you need not look to the Walmart petition to sniff out hypocrisy. The Nation, among plenty of other left-leaning outlets, has itself run print articles and blog posts chronicling the class privilege and labor violations entailed in the internship economy. (Disclosure: I authored one such StudentNation post. The response was not entirely surprising.) Had Restivo authored this rebuttal in a timely fashion in June, he might even have brought mild embarrassment upon the magazine.
But, inexplicably, he waited until August. And as his own note mentions, The Nation took up the issue of unpaid internships just last week; after its spring interns wrote a letter to the editor asking the magazine to put its internship money where its mouth is, The Nation Institute resolved to pay interns minimum wage, effective this fall. (As Nation publicity director Caitlin Graf explained via email, that timeline is a bit oversimplified. The Nation Institute started fundraising as early as last fall to raise pay for interns; the letter just speeded things up.) Problem solved! Well, no—minimum wage is of course not much, and it doesn't take Alan Greenspan to notice that minimum wage is still less than Walmart employees' $8.81 an hour.
"The Nation makes a regular habit of ignoring some basic truths about Walmart," Restivo argued in a follow-up email to The Atlantic Wire. "Or entry-level associates are no different than those at other businesses. Many are just beginning their careers or looking to supplement other sources of income. And many stay with us and advance to greater responsibility."
Nevertheless, The Nation's reasoned response to its interns' gripe displayed a pretty admirable willingness to own up to its hypocrisies and commit to correcting them. That's more than anyone can say of Walmart, which recently threatened to shut down a store in Washington, D.C., if a "living wage" bill were to pass. Meanwhile, Walmart has shifted the conversation well away from its own labor practices. More to the point, the comparison of a multi-billion dollar corporation whose labor practices are questionable to a fairly small nonprofit organization raising money to fund investigative journalism is willfully ridiculous. That's the argument The Nation pressed last night in its statement following the Walmart comment:
For a more apples-to-apples comparison: unlike at Walmart, the staff of The Nation is unionized, and our newest employees make almost double the New York City living wage calculation.
The Nation Institute continues to fundraise to make its internships available and accessible. In the meantime, don't be distracted: Walmart is eager to turn the focus away from their $17 billion in profits and unwillingness to use that largesse to help their employees thrive and raise their families. This is a cheap shot, but one that will not be able to stop the growing movement to push America's largest employer to pay enough for their employees to live on.
That's not to brush aside the issues posed by unpaid internships. They are real, and they are troublesome. Frankly, The Nation's $175-a-week stipend is better than the industry norm—which is nothing—and that's not a cause for celebration.
But given last week's news, Walmart is a little late to the party, and the company's motives in pressing the issue are nakedly self-serving. Moral purity in this debate isn't freedom from hypocrisy. It's owning up to your hypocrisies and working to improve the system.