Unpaid Internships Lawsuit 2013: Dear Liberal Nonprofits — Pay Your Interns!


To my fellow bleeding-heart liberals, progressives, and leftists:

After hearing about a landmark federal ruling on the legality of unpaid internships that was handed down Tuesday, I was ecstatic. "Finally!" I thought. "Corporations are being held accountable for their shameless use of free labor."

Yet nonprofits and government agencies are still legally able to hire unpaid interns. That's right — organizations like Congress and the UN are still allowed to have armies of unpaid interns hoping to break into fields like law, international development, or policy making. 

At most nonprofits, I can understand the need for volunteering, and I am more than happy to do unpaid work for a good cause. The majority of nonprofit organizations are small and have few resources to achieve their goals. 

However, as an unabashed leftist, I can't help but feel uncomfortable about the way that unpaid internships shut out potential candidates based on social class. My main issue with unpaid internships is not whether an individual position is exploitative. Rather, it has to do with the people who are not able to work for free. 

Most of you are genuinely committed to finding solutions for complex issues like economic inequality and poverty. Unpaid internships only exacerbate these problems. 

I have searched for internships at over 40 liberal and left-leaning nonprofit political organizations with offices in Washington, D.C. Their mission statements clearly include words like "social justice" and "a voice for all." But I'm not looking for a position of my own. Instead, I'm trying to figure out which organizations practice what they preach.

Over half of the organizations I've looked at offer at least one unpaid internship opportunity. Some of them offered transportation stipends, and others paid for lunch. Some of them listed internship opportunities in the same sentence as volunteering, implying a lack of pay. Still others say nothing about pay at all or only list internship opportunities on other websites. 

"But Radhika!" you exclaim. "We don't have the Koch brothers or ALEC bankrolling us! As a liberal nonprofit staffer, I'm not exactly a millionaire. How the hell is my organization supposed to pay interns?"

It's very simple: Either you believe in economic justice or you don't. Either you believe in a fair playing field or you don't. 

Unpaid internships implicitly tell thousands of young people that only the rich are entitled to influence policy and work towards a better world. By not paying your interns, you are tacitly acknowledging that you do not really value the work that young people do. You are really saying that only people of a certain social class have a place in the future of progressive and liberal organizing.

In short, your hiring practices are enabling the very ills that your organizations seek to redress. Unpaid internships perpetuate systemic privilege and devalue people's work.

If you are genuinely a small organization that cannot afford to pay interns, you can do one of two things: (1) Try to secure independent funding for interns before you hire them, or (2) Follow the Department of Labor's six-point test for unpaid internships as closely as you can.

If you are a bit bigger, pay an hourly minimum wage while campaigning to raise it, or at least a measly stipend to go along with the transportation and lunch benefits.

In short: pay your interns. Because our movement can do better.