AFT Interns Vote to Join First Nonmedical Intern Union in US

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Interns at a major teachers union have voted to form the “first non-medical intern union” in the United States after a year of negotiations on the topic.

Last week saw 15 interns for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), who already receive payment for their work, vote to join the Office and Professional Employees International Union.

“We’re hoping actually that this could be the beginning of an effort to organize interns at other locations,” says Lou Wolf, an organizer with OPEIU, listing off government agencies and large media organizations as potential targets. “The economy in many ways has shifted to low-paying or no-paying jobs, particularly for the entry level, with the result being that people in their 20s and 30s are finding it difficult to get their feet on the ground and accumulate a little wealth.”

According to a number of universities who have been faced with graduate students and athletes trying to unionize, only interns who receive payment are eligible to join unions.  Those who take unpaid internship positions acknowledge that in place of a salary they are receiving an education, and so are not held to the same laws as those who receive payment for their work.

However, the world of interns is at a crossroads, as a number of lawsuits have forced companies to pay in multimillion-dollar settlements to previous interns.  This could cause companies and institutions to begin to pay their interns in order to avoid liability, writes Lydia DePillis for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Eric Glatt, who was successful in his lawsuit against Fox Searchlight for his work done while interning on the 2010 film “Black Swan,” said there is a social component to issues of unionization as well.

“I think the challenges to intern unionizing turns on the fact that interns are, almost by definition, not sticking around for a long time,” says Glatt, who just graduated from Georgetown Law School and is headed to work for the American Civil Liberties Union. “And there’s a lot of pressure to internship arrangements that prioritize getting a great recommendation from your boss over the immediate return of being paid for your labor.”

While internships are widely viewed as a chance to gain experience and the potential for future employment in exchange for labor, many have suggested that the practice is exploitative and menial.  Many argue that hiring interns comes with the caveat that they filter out lower-income students who may have the potential, but do not have the means to take an unpaid position.  According to recent evidence, internships are likely to result in poor and middle class students becoming stuck in unpaid positions, writes Jasmine Garsd for NPR.

Condé Nast became the subject of a high profile case last year when the company was required to pay more than $5 million as a result of a class-action suit brought on by former interns who claimed they had been underpaid.

Negotiations between the AFT and the intern union will begin in July.  Topics of conversation will cover everything from pay to benefits and hours.

In a statement released regarding the interns’ union, AFT President Randi Weingarten said, “We respect the decision of the American Federation of Teachers interns to form and vote for a union … [because] we know that people are more likely to succeed when they have a real voice on the job.”

The AFT represents 1.6 million teachers, higher education faculty and professional staff, as well as a variety of healthcare workers who hold positions at schools.