“By suing, the interns have won the battle but seem to have lost the war.”

November 25th, 2013

The Times reports on a story I’ve been covering for some time on this blog–how efforts to force companies to pay interns minimum wage will more likely harm the very students and recent-graduates the movement seeks to help.

Unpaid internships, which are to the publishing business what the mailroom was to Hollywood studios, are under broad attack. Both Hearst Magazines and Condé Nast have been sued by former interns who assert that they performed a great deal of work for little or no money. Hearst, which has vigorously defended itself in court, is contemplating dumping internships, and Women’s Wear Daily revealed last month that Condé Nast would no longer provide internships.

These internships are by their very nature discriminatory. Only a certain kind of young person can afford to spend a summer working for no pay. According to sources at the major publishers, more than one in five of these plum spots typically go to people who are connected one way or another.

Unpaid internships typically provide people who already have a leg up a way to get the other leg up. (This might be the spot to mention that for three days during Fashion Week, my 17-year-old daughter did an unofficial unpaid stint at Cosmopolitan.)

But the cure — doing away with internships — doesn’t solve the problem for either the interns or the publishers. The people who know someone who know someone will probably still get a low-paying gig. The people working with only their bootstraps will be out of luck.

By suing, the interns have won the battle but seem to have lost the war.

A recent New York Post story quotes an unnamed intern who is not happy with these suits:

“It feels like the people who sued kind of ruined it for everyone else because, I mean, if you don’t like your internship, you can cancel it. You can say, ‘I’m sorry, I quit.’ Not, ‘Well, I’ll stick it out and sue you,’ ” says Jenny Achiam, a junior at Florida State University who was an editorial intern at Lucky magazine this past summer.

“It’s a shame that the resource won’t be available to other students in the future,” she says.

Breaking into the fashion or media industry is not for everyone.

Add this to my long jeremiad against the war interns are losing.