LectureHop: Internships, Labor Rights, and the Columbia Community

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I think SWS must stand for Super White Smiles.

I think SWS must stand for Super White Smiles.

Monday night, a number of students gathered in a small room in Pupin to discuss the modern obstacles of labor rights in America. The presentation was titled Intern and Labor Rights: Amnesty Presents a Panel Discussion. It featured, among others, Ross Perlin. Perlin is best known for his book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. Our intern young contributor, Zachary Hendrickson, was there to come up with an intellectual excuse for why he hasn’t found a job yet.

The first to speak was Patrick Gallagher, a former grad student of Columbia who is now at NYU. Gallagher’s portion mostly discussed he and his colleagues’ efforts to unionize graduate TAs and RAs at both CU and NYU. His point focused on the notion of graduate students as workers. He mentioned complaints that are well-known in the graduate community. Some examples include little pay for long hours, work that doesn’t truly relate to what the graduate student is studying, and little to no support over the summer months. Gallagher also expressed concern toward the relationship between the graduate student and their faculty adviser, a relationship which he describes as “paternalistic.” This feeling of being treated like a child with no power fueled much of his push for unionization. “I immediately jumped at the chance to assert myself as a citizen,” Gallagher says.

Needless to say, the fight for unionization has been a long and tumultuous one. Gallagher spoke of a ballot measure for unionization that went out among Columbia grad students. Before the votes could be counted, however, the ballots were impounded and incinerated. This was done on the grounds of the NLRB’s decision in 2004 to overturn a 2000 court decision involving NYU that had given graduate students the ability to negotiate a contract for terms of employment. The overturn, which happened under the George W. Bush administration, established the view that graduate students of private universities (not public) are working in a capacity that can be equated to a form of modern apprenticeship. Therefore, they do not have legal right to bargain for working conditions because their work is more about education. This doesn’t mean that universities can’t negotiate with grad students, but why would they want to do that? Hope still lives, however. The NLRB has been reconsidering the 2004 decision since August, and Gallagher is hopeful that this time it will come down in favor of the graduate students.

With no down time between applause and the next speaker, Perlin began his portion of the discussion. He illuminated the fact that an internship is a relatively new concept. Truly it does seem absurd when you think about it. “Working unpaid is an expected thing. It’s something that everyone is expected to do,” Perlin muses. He also described the frustrations of researching the intern phenomena because the word intern, according to Perlin, has no definition. “It’s a buzz word. It’s a catch all,” he says. This allows for different corporations to claim a wide variety of jobs under the term internship. The differences could be drastic such as the difference between paid and unpaid, between working in a training environment and being an errand boy, or between working on a team and working alone.


The evolution of the intern started long ago in the world of medicine, then to the political realm, and now nearly every company out there has some form of an internship position. To be fair, the early internships of the ‘60s and ‘70s were most often paid positions that were used as a recruitment tool. However, that is hardly the case today. Today it is not about career training for the intern, but more about what the company can squeeze out of the intern. Perlin explains, “The emphasis is on being a go-getter, learning on the job, figuring it out yourself. This is the kind of rhetoric. And as all of us are being told to be Generation Entrepreneur, we have internalized this.” As economic prospects sour, more and more people are turning to internships as a possible road to employment, yet they often end up becoming what Perlin calls a “serial intern,” stuck in a cycle of non-paid internships that have been constructed by companies to keep people working for free. It is the ultimate pie in the sky, one that we will all most likely keep reaching for.

Luckily, this is one area where the law is on our side should we lowly interns decide to rise up against the almighty corporations. What I refer to is a small legal loophole that comes from a 1947 Supreme Court Decision involving the Fair Labor Standards Act and lays out a very important six point test. It says if someone is a trainee (intern has been accepted as a legal substitute here) that is providing “no immediate advantage” to the employer, then that trainee does not need to be paid. This has been monumental in fighting for the labor rights of interns. In the last year there have been three class action lawsuits brought up by interns to challenge the way they were treated by their employer. This is great news considering that at the end of his time, Perlin spelled out the consequences for the audience rather clearly. There are four major issues here: the devaluation of work (making us lose sense of what a worker really is), internships as a sorting measure for success (only the wealthy can afford to work for so long without pay), workplace protections (they don’t have them even on issues as serious as sexual harassment), and the fact that they force people into precarious working situations (unstable form of income which leads to greater economic turmoil). And to think, Bwog was really stoked about that offer from Goldman Sachs…

Here entered Maida Rosenstein, President of UAW local 2110. She spoke more to the rich history of Columbia workers fighting for their labor rights. She described her time as a clerical worker here in the ‘70s and how there was a lot of gender discrimination. Rosenstein talked about how there was initially this view that the way the women were treated didn’t really matter because they were somehow elective positions, that is to say that they were just working until they got married or that it was extra money on the side. As far as the struggle at Barnard, she applauded the student efforts both for making the issue known and for their role as moral support. Rosenstein pressed the fact that, “The fight that we’re in now is to try to hold on to what we’ve won over the last 30 years.” She also pointed out her frustration over the disparity between the wealth of institutions like Columbia and how little its workers make. She will admit that things are better, but they certainly aren’t great. Perhaps the most touching moment of the night came from her recollection of the 2002 election among Columbia graduate students that Patrick Gallagher had mentioned earlier. When the graduate students went on strike directly following the incineration of their ballots, many of the other workers at Columbia dropped everything to join them in a sympathy strike. How incredible for a group of workers that had already secured benefits for themselves to put themselves back in the line of fire in order to help another group of people who they knew were being treated unjustly!

One of the leaders of the Student Worker Solidarity group, Evan Burger CC’13, was the last to chime in. In Burger’s opinion, the greatest challenge is the separation between a finished product and how it was made. This applies to education because, in a sense, we are being produced by the university, yet many of us take the time to sit down and really think about all the people who work hard every day so that we may have this incredible opportunity. Burger noted his frustration with the ways in which people often say that there is no community on campus while simultaneously ignoring most of the Columbia workers that they come across in a given day. On the role of the SWS in changing these things, he had this to say, “Part of our job is pulling back the curtain.” Burger is, ultimately, quite hopeful. He talked of how inspired he was to see the student response to the plight of the Barnard workers and their continued commitment to the SWS’ new campaign at Indus Valley restaurant. Burger closed out the night with this comment, “Wherever you are there is some political problem, and it seems like 9 times out of 10 – maybe even 10 out of 10 – the solution is organizing.”

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  1. Arthx major

    The art history department needs to stop sending out emails to students about internships at NYC art galleries. You should read some of these internship requirements, they're ridiculous.

  2. sympathies  

    That six point test? I'm familiar with it, and never once have I seen or heard tell of a legal unpaid internship. So it goes.

  3. Anonymous

    most of the outcry so far has been from individuals, not collective. anyone else out there who'd like to band up together and speak out? i don't know about y'all, but I'd like to have been paid for my five internships that benefited from my work and that (obviously) didn't meet the six criteria.

  4. Anonymous  

    This was a great event! Cheers to Amnesty and all who attended.

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