(Ruben Schade/Flickr/Creative Commons).

Originally published at In These Times

You’d have to be pretty desperate to offer to work for free, right? Or you could be just an enthusiastic young student who believes that toiling for little more than free coffee and a line on your resume may boost your future career. But recent research shows that unpaid internships are not likely to lead a coveted job offer.

Now, some interns are taking legal action against bosses whom they say offered nothing in return for their labor. And the courts are listening. Earlier this month, a federal judge in Manhattan cast a legal shadow over unpaid internships by certifying a class-action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight and Fox Entertainment Group. Two unpaid interns filed suit accusing Fox of denying them proper wages for the weeks they spent performing essentially the same duties as regular employees.

The suit reveals how youthful aspirants can be seduced into a crap job gilded with glamorous IOUs. Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman allege that as Fox Searchlight interns, they “took lunch orders, answered phones, arranged other employees’ travel plans, tracked purchase orders, took out the trash and assembled office furniture,” according to the New York Times.

The Department of Labor says that unpaid internships are supposed to balance educational experience for the intern and valuable labor for the employer. Paradoxically, under current legal guidelines, unpaid intern labor cannot include tasks that would warrant real pay, since any labor comparable to a regular job must be compensated as such.

Despite Fox’s rigorous legal denials, the suit may open avenues of recourse for many other interns and perhaps compel employers to drop unpaid internships in order to stear clear of labor violations.

So far one major payout has been issued to settle such a suit: The Charlie Rose Show recently paid a settlement totaling about $250,000 to provide back wages of roughly $110 per week for a group of as many as 189 unpaid interns.

Other major legal decisions are on the horizon. A similar suit was filed last year by a former intern at Hearst Magazines, claiming that the company violated New York State and federal labor laws by giving unpaid interns tasks with no educational value, such as opening mail for editors, sometimes for a full work week. Though a judge recently ruled that the suit did not qualify as a class action, the claims might still be pursued individually.

The real value of an internship is ambiguous. A National Association of Colleges and Employers survey found that paid internships did boost job prospects, unlike their unpaid counterparts. A majority of paid interns received a job offer afterward. But the unpaid intern experience seems more of a time suck than a springboard; unpaid interns received future paid job offers at about the same rate, just over 35 percent, as those who had not interned.

From class action to class consciousness

How does wage justice for unpaid interns, who fall somewhere between transitory office grunts and elites-in-training, fit into broader movements for workplace justice? On the one hand, the hordes of fresh-faced generalists flocking to unpaid jobs are a measure of the desperate state of today’s post-college labor market. At the same time, while unpaid interns may themselves be exploited, they represent the dregs of a tier of privilege that closes professional gateways for countless others. Less-privileged workers may dismiss the disgruntled interns as overachieving corporate climbers. However, the emerging legal conflicts suggest that the young professional precariat has more in common with ordinary struggling wage workers, despite what students are trained to believe about their future prospects.

David Yamada, a labor law specialist at Suffolk University Law School, comments via email, “We’ll probably never know how many people from modest backgrounds don’t even bother applying for unpaid internships because they know they can’t afford it. But there surely is a strong element of economic class bias in this practice.”

Juno Turner, an attorney with Outten & Golden, representing the interns in both the Fox and Hearst cases, tells Working In These Times that while the firm’s first priority is to resolve the wage dispute, the bigger hope is that the suits will prompt more paid internships. These, she notes, “can be taken advantage of by a broader spectrum of individuals, including those unable to work for free, and in turn will open doors for career paths that might have been foreclosed to those who couldn’t previously take internships.”

It is unsurprising that the first major intern lawsuits would emerge in sectors built on fame and reputation, where the biggest, brittlest dreams go to die as promises of glamor fail to match up with unglamorous drudge work that drives these industries. The controversy represents deeper disillusionment rippling through an over-educated, underpaid workforce who are anxious, financially insecure and increasingly outraged.

The aggrieved interns have been savvy enough to take advantage of media and entertainment companies’ image-consciousness by leveraging the power of publicity. Yamada says that since it was filed in 2011, the Fox lawsuit has “led to the creation of informal networks of former interns and lawyers weighing the possibility of bringing lawsuits to challenge unpaid internships,” and has since developed intern networks that “are coalescing via social media and face-to-face gatherings. This is becoming a genuine social and legal movement.”

White-collar indenture

Against the imbalanced opportunity structure built on pre-professional indenture, culture industry interns seed a new kind of youthful labor agitation. There’s precedent: In the 1930s and 1940s, a fresh crop of rebellious designers and artists helped forge what historian Michael Denning described as the “Cultural Front.” The movement provided cultural workers a platform to spread leftist and radical ideas through mass media ranging from jazz at the Cafe Society to the populist romance of Steinbeck. The 1941 animators’ strike at Disney studios helped project labor struggles into popular entertainment, highlighting the convergence of mass media and a new precariat of creative workers (many of them who grew up in the immigrant industrial working-class), and also elucidated how mass-cultural production shaped working-class leisure as well as labor. Today, movements like Occupy Wall Street have brought together white-collar young professionals and blue-collar and service workers who all feel cheated by a vastly unequal economy.

Interns may not stage a mass work stoppage or march on Fifth Avenue. But they are a new breed of troublemakers. Their plight echoes the labor conflicts of early-modern times that stirred disaffected young apprentices to rise up against their masters. When young people realize that an apparent stepping stone is really an indefinite dead end, they learn quickly that their labor rights are not worth trading away for empty promises. Once the mask slips on the illusion of “making it” after college, they might even find common cause with other workers who already know how hard it is to get a fair day’s pay.