The current and former interns who straggled into Brad's, an all-purpose "beers and burgers and booze and bites" joint in Greenwich Village, for an Intern Happy Hour had begun comparing notes on how grim the landscape of unpaid labor has become.
"It's pretty crazy the things that are going as internships these days," said Blythe Riley, who served as an intern in the art world in the 1990s. "Recently I saw a listing for a security intern for a gallery. A security guard! That should be paid."
Greg Riestenberg, a graphic designer, discussed his own experience coming from the University of Cincinnati, where his co-op program required design architecture and engineering internships to be paid, to New York.
"I came to New York for grad school and I saw people even at the grad school level taking unpaid internships and I was like, 'This is really messed up,'" he shared. "In Cincinnati, we had jobs for sophomore undergrads that were paid."
"The fact that I see these patterns—I feel like it's an increasing story where countries are doing that," he said. "They're replacing entry-level employees with unpaid interns. It's destroying jobs for people that had them previously."
Most weeks the members of Intern Labor Rights meet at Think Coffee, near Washington Square Park, to talk about strategies and plan actions. In February, they produced hundreds of "PAY YOUR INTERNS" bags to be given out at Fashion Week events, targeting an industry notorious for its labor policies. They've also developed an ongoing "WTF?!" campaign, in which they scour job boards and Craigslist for particularly egregious internship listings, then shame the companies responsible on their web site and contact them to let them know they're breaking the law. And they joined forces with an NYU student who petitioned the university's Wasserman Career Center to stop including unpaid internships in its job database.
Adam Rotstein, an aspiring comedy writer who graduated from Wesleyan in December, was upset at working without pay, as well as the sham of granting college credit—something many employers require of their unpaid interns as a legal defense. "I got an unpaid internship at the Colbert Report last semester and most of the kids were juniors and sophomores in college, so they had to show [their schools] a syllabus of the work they were going to do, which was bullshit—we did all clerical work," Rotstein said. "We had to mislead our colleges, because no institution wants to grant us credit for getting coffee and sorting boxes for five-and-a-half months."
But because they weren't being paid, Viacom required them to get credit. When he contacted Wesleyan, the school offered to grant him one post-graduation credit to show to the Colbert Report—if he paid $1,200 in tuition. "I was like, wow, not only am I working for free for five-and-a-half months, financing my own apartment, but now I'm also paying an extra $1,200 to get a credit that I don't need, because I already graduated, to do clerical work for an unpaid internship that's going to offer me literally nothing in terms of empirical experience," he said.
So he completed the internship, which was roughly 30 hours a week, and never followed up with the school to pay for or receive the credit. As long as Viacom had files verifying that he was receiving it, they were satisfied.
But he's not sure the internship was much more than a resume booster. "Literally all I got out of my Colbert Report internship was getting one of the writers to follow me on Twitter," he said. "And he favorites instead of retweeting, which was a crushing disappointment."
Photos by Rachel Pincus.