An “opportunity” to work for free?

March 8, 2012

Alex Tronolone describes the proliferation of unpaid internships in his city, and explains why they are a threat to professional museum educators.

I RECENTLY received an announcement for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Museum Internship Teaching Opportunity," to take place this summer. The teaching internship includes 32 hours of unpaid training followed by six weeks of unpaid work during the summer.

As a museum educator at numerous New York City cultural institutions, let me be the first to repudiate this slap in the face to dedicated museum professionals, who make our museums come to life for tens of thousands of students, tourists and residents every year.

Museum educators typically work on a per diem basis, enjoying no job protections, no benefits and no guaranteed income. In the most extreme cases, our income is dependent on the weather and the classroom behavior of students (if the trip gets cancelled, we don't get paid).

Most of us excelled in our studies and hold bachelors degrees, and some of us hold advanced degrees in education, museum studies, art and architecture. Due to the hiring freeze in New York City public schools, holders of masters degrees in education are earning $11-$22 per hour for less than 20 hours a week--hardly the promise of economic advancement we were thinking of when we entered graduate school.

Most museum educators work with school tours, which means during the summer months, our income is restricted and potentially non-existent. We're not eligible for unemployment benefits, as we're considered "freelancers." And all of us are struggling to maintain financial independence while we pay down our student debt.

WHAT TYPE of "opportunity" is this unpaid teaching internship other than an opportunity to exploit precarious workers? Who among us can afford to work so much for nothing but experience?

This announcement continues a worrying trend I've noticed at the cultural institutions where I work: student interns given "school credit" to do the same work I get paid to do. In this case, your school gets your money, your boss gets your money, and you get experience, which hopefully one day you can turn into a job (that is, unless it's already taken by someone paying a school to work for free for experience).

Furthermore, unpaid internships exacerbate differences in class and race as a matter of fact. Poorer students cannot take on the additional financial burden of free labor while at the same time taking on student loans and maintaining rent, food and bills. If you've got children or elderly relatives to take care of at home, you can "fuhggeddaboutit" (as we say in Brooklyn).

The close interrelationship in the United States between class and race means that minority students are overwhelmingly the most affected by schemes like these. Thus, unpaid internships tend to replicate divisions already present in society and do not represent any "opportunity" for economic advancement (except for the institutions profiting from your free labor, of course).

There is absolutely no justification in the world for "unpaid" labor--all labor should be paid. Our demand should not be that internships be ended--our demand should be that interns be fairly compensated for their labor.

Asking students and workers to both pay their school and work for free while an institution collects admissions, grants and donations for administrative salaries is the height of disrespect for our labor and contribution. If you're not raking in your income from stocks, financial assets or rent, then the only way you can make money is by selling your labor. Giving that labor away for free makes everyone's work less valuable.

As both local governments and governments across the globe slash municipal budgets (for the 99 percent) to pay back bond holders (the 1 percent), the incentive to cultural institutions will be to replace paid labor with unpaid labor, to reduce hours, accessibility, and programming, and eventually to layoff their workforce and close, in a worst case scenario.

We need to join our fight for a decent wage with the fight against austerity budgets. We need to fully fund our cultural institutions so that they can afford to pay a living wage to the people who preserve and archive history, who illuminate millions of years of natural history, thousands of years of world culture, and hundreds of years of local and national history.

The fight is impossible to win alone. Only a revived struggle in all areas of public life can turn the tide of austerity and poverty we face in the coming years. Only a revived union movement can muster the social strength required to end precarious freelance labor and guarantee wages, benefits and a pension

Further Reading

From the archives