This season, activists will join the throngs of journalists, bloggers, designers, models, and celubutantes participating in the three-ring circus of New York Fashion Week. Over the weekend of February 8th to February 10th, Intern Labor Rights, a sub-committee of Occupy Wall Street’s Arts and Labor group, will descend on Lincoln Center to oppose the use of illegal unpaid internships in the fashion industry.
Eschewing traditional protest methods, activists are quietly usurping the spectacle of Fashion Week by handing out their own “swag bags” filled with literature. “We’re working within the Fashion Week mode, using their methods to tell a different story,” says protest organizer Peter Walsh. The action is inspired by British organizations SUARTS (the Student Union of the University of Arts London) and Intern Aware — authors of the “The Devil Pays Nada” campaign who are working to stage a protest at the upcoming London Fashion Week.
Conventional wisdom dictates that internships are the only way for students get their foot in the door of their chosen profession, but Eric Glatt — a co-organizer of the protests and plaintiff in a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures (he's suing for improper compensation while he interned on the set of “Black Swan”) — contends that uncompensated internships are nothing short of “generational wage theft.”
“This practice has become so normalized,” says Glatt, “that a lot of people assume it must be legal.” Technically, it isn’t. The US Department of Labor stipulates that “internships in the ‘for-profit’ private sector will most often be viewed as employment” unless they meets all of six criteria of internships, including, "the intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff," and “the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.”
The law has implications, not only for the fashion world, but for all creative industries that systematically employ free labor. Answering phones in an art gallery, making Starbucks runs on a film set, and picking up after models at Fashion Week do not qualify as intern duties.
Despite the prevalence of unpaid internships in other creative sectors, the fashion industry is the most obvious target. “It’s a multi-billion-dollar international culture industry. The fact that their business plan includes what, in my opinion, is stealing from their student workers, is really egregious,” says Walsh. “The law is less clear with all of the nonprofit statuses within the visual arts. In the fashion world, I don’t see any gray area at all.” Because companies are not required to disclose how many interns they take on, there aren’t solid data on how many unpaid interns work in the fashion industry. Nevertheless, the exploitation of interns is beginning to come to light. Last February, Diana Wang, a disgruntled Harper’s Bazaar intern, took a page out of Glatt’s playbook and filed a lawsuit against Hearst Publications for violating labor laws.
Skeptics might dismiss the issue of unpaid internships with a “first-world problem” hashtag, but the problem does go beyond the purview of trust-fund kids who are willing to work for free. “It may look to outsiders like it’s a problem of the privileged elite,” says Glatt, “but when we put this into a broader context, these are working class issues. It institutionalizes class advantage. It closes the door to people who cannot afford to work for free. It also puts downward pressure on people working and competing with free labor.”
The movement draws a through-line between widespread unpaid internships and the erosion of the middle class. “This historic job crisis is being met with a wealthy class of people who don’t want to be called wealthy anymore. They want to be called job creators. If that’s really the title you want to give yourself, why don’t you start by creating jobs?”
The problem is cultural as well as economic: “It’s not a coincidence that this is happening at the same time that the middle class is basically eroding away.” Glatt links the excess of unpaid internships to a culture of celebrity and exceptionalism, such that uncompensated labor has become glamorized. “I’ve seen many people post, in response to my lawsuit, saying, "That’s crazy. I would give my left arm just to be on the set next to Darren Aronofsky.” But being on the set next to Darren Aronofsky doesn’t actually provide you much value unless you value proximity to celebrity.”
The most common criticism of Occupy Wall Street is that it lacked a coherent ideological program and tangible objectives. But the goals of Action Against Unpaid Internships are straightforward. Coupling high-level litigation with grass-roots advocacy, they aim to end the epidemic of unpaid internships once and for all. “There’s sort of a one-two punch going on here,” says Walsh. “We think the law is on our side. Once we can get people really thinking about what’s going on, we think this is winnable.”