Whether you are a college student, recent graduate, or young professional still seeking work in this lackluster economy, there is no escaping the unpaid internship. Washington D.C. in particular seems to be a hub for these positions, as non-profits and the federal government alike offer internships to attract idealistic young people looking to change the world. Unfortunately, the unpaid internship has become a bigger and bigger problem for millennials, who have plenty of experience in these positions, but seem unable to find as job willing to offer them a salary for their hard work.
Mikey Franklin, a 23-year-old Brit living in D.C. experienced that struggle first hand and decided that he had to do something to change the system. Franklin came to the states last year and instantly began working on political campaigns with the goal of eventually working on Capitol Hill. “I really liked the West Wing,” he told me. “I was inspired by the idea of being a part of the next generation of D.C. hacks.”
Then suddenly, on inauguration day 2012, Franklin found himself sitting with a colleague at The Pancake House in Rockville, Maryland, discussing their future job prospects, since the 2012 campaign season had ended. Together they realized, as they scoured job boards, that the only option seemingly available in the down and out job market was to take on an unpaid internship. And from that, the Fair Pay Campaign was born.
“If you want to get ahead, you have to start out in an internship,” Franklin said. “The culture of unpaid internships is just ruining the American dream,” Franklin went on to explain, specifically in the way unpaid internships are taking workers out of the labor market by sticking them in unpaid gigs, while companies and organizations replace what should be full time paid positions with free labor.
Through the Fair Pay Campaign, Franklin is hoping to tap into the groundswell of young college graduates who are sick of being told they should just work for free. Through building up a grassroots member network across the country and partnering with labor organizations politicians can’t ignore, the Fair Pay Campaign is looking to go after the most egregious offenders when it comes to relying on unpaid interns first. Specifically, Franklin started at the top, targeting the White House.
“If we can get President Obama to start paying his interns, other democrats on Capitol Hill and liberal institutions will have to follow suit,” Franklin said. If all goes according to plan, the Fair Campaign has a good chance of success in this regard. As the White House continues to work to raise the minimum wage, Franklin is hoping to tap into the political momentum of this cause to draw attention to the hypocrisy of fighting for a livable wage while hundreds are your employees are completely unpaid.
The Fair Pay Campaign is also looking to tap into universities and college career centers, to encourage them to stop advertising unpaid internships, and to encourage more students to seek out only positions that offer a stipend. Furthermore, the campaign will endorse and advertise for organizations that pay their interns, in an effort to promote good labor practices, while urging others to shun organizations that don’t comply to these standards.
It’s estimated that in a single summer in Washington D.C. alone, about 20,000 interns in the city are working for free. “I am utterly and permanently mindful that we are fighting a culture that is deeply, deeply ingrained in D.C.,” Franklin said.
While both noble and necessary, the goal of the Fair Pay Campaign is a difficult one to achieve. For every Mikey Franklin willing to say “enough is enough, I simply cannot afford to work for free,” there are others who have parents that are more than willing to support them financially throughout their 20’s in the hopes that eventually these unpaid internships will turn into a prestigious career. Regardless of the challenges, every social movement has to start somewhere. And what better place to change the tides of fair labor than Washington D.C.?