Way back in May 2012 I wrote and posted a blog on this website entitled “Pay Up!” In that essay I argued that people should get paid for working. What a concept, huh? Revolutionary.
In that blog, I was reacting to an article that had just appeared in the New York Times about the phenomenon of unpaid internships. But then, for a while things seemed to be improving. In June 2013 a Federal District Court judge in Manhattan ruled that Fox Searchlight had violated federal and New York minimum wage laws by not paying production interns working on Black Swan. And for a few years, young people getting out of college (often with huge student loan debt) were actually earning some money at their first film industry jobs.
Of course, here at Milestone, we have continued our practice of paying interns. In fact, when I became an active supporter of Bernie Sanders, we began paying all college students and grads $15 an hour and our high school assistants $13 an hour.
So Dennis and I are truly dismayed to learn that many production companies, theaters, museums, and fellow film distributors have gone back to the old practice of allowing well-educated, hard-working young people to work for free.
In August, as our two wonderful summer interns Austin and Malu were preparing to leave and were looking for new internships or employment, we heard from them about how hard it is to find any that pays. Honestly, we were appalled to hear about companies and institutions that pay a $10 or $25 per day — or absolutely nothing at all.
As a former labor historian, I also want to take a moment to address an argument I sometimes hear — that unpaid internships are essentially an extension of the age-old apprenticeship model (and I am definitely not referring to a former television show!). So here is the thing: “the system of apprenticeship first developed in the later Middle Ages and came to be supervised by craft guilds and town governments. A master craftsman was entitled to employ young people as an inexpensive form of labour in exchange for providing food, lodging and formal training in the craft.”
Interns in 2018 have to house, feed, clothe, and transport themselves and they carry enormous debt burdens. The average loan debt of a student graduating in New York State in 2017 was more than $30,000. You can read more here.
Back in 2012 I wrote that Dennis and I were the only full-time permanent staff at Milestone and that we worked in the basement of our house, cleaned the cat boxes, packed orders, and did all the production, bookkeeping, and shipping. We still do. And we are making the exact same salary we were earning when I wrote that 2012 blog — that is, when our cash flow allows us to take pay checks.
FYI, we earn a little more than double what our interns do (and that is only if you presume that we work only 40 hours a week. We don’t). And it is interesting to note that the Economic Policy Institute reported this year that the average CEO pay is 271 times that of the typical American worker.
I understand that in addition to making hard choices that keep our overhead low (literally — tall interns need to duck in our subterranean office), Dennis and I are also lucky to be able to decide to pay our interns fairly. For one thing, we only hire interns for short-term assignments, and then only when we can afford to. For another, in our early years, we benefited from family financial help.
But think about this: the endowment of the New York’s Museum of Modern Art is almost half a billion dollars. And in the current listings on the New York Foundation for the Arts jobs page, MoMA’s PS1 is advertising an unpaid Live Programming Internship. Really.
Recently, Bernie Sanders introduced the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act (or the “Stop BEZOS” Act) — legislation aimed at taxing companies whose 500+ employees earn low wages and receive federal benefits like food stamps, public housing, and Medicaid. Bernie is trying to get us to think about, talk about, and change current corporate practices that are making our country increasingly unequal in income and wealth. As he has said, “A nation will not survive morally or economically when so few have so much, while so many have so little.”
Now I cannot change the Gini coefficient (a measure of statistical dispersion intended to represent the income or wealth distribution of a nation's residents, and is the most commonly used measurement of inequality) of the USA.
Neither can you. But we may be able to do something — and we must try.
I’m trying by paying my interns and writing this blog. Maybe you can try something too! This world isn’t going to get fairer or kinder or more just unless we all try to do whatever we can. Think about it...
And finally, remember that it isn’t a fairy tale that once upon a time working people joined forces to try to improve pay and working conditions and to make the world more equitable and peaceful.
Yours in solidarity,
And here is a positive postscript! Thanks to the efforts of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Amazon has announced that the company is raising its minimum wage to $15 for all US employees, including full-time, part-time, temporary and seasonal workers! You can read more here!