Ah, summertime. A time for many students at the University of Michigan to head off to big corporations to get the opportunity to earn a meaningful wage and network — an opportunity that can open doors for years to come. These individuals have positioned themselves for success now and in the future. These internships should obviously be celebrated, but what about those who don’t have corporate aspirations? What about the students who have to take an unpaid internship with a political candidate?
I come from a pretty low socioeconomic background, and I have perceived how tone-deaf many student organizations are when it comes to money. This is unsurprising when we consider that the median family income here is $154,000 a year. And while I have met a number of people who are supportive and wonderful, I’ve met just as many or more who don’t know or don’t care about the struggles of low-income students at the University.
What’s more surprising, however, are the politicians who offer “summer internships” for students who are developing or already have a deep passion for social and political change. These interns could be the next senator, representative or simply an activist for a particular issue they care about. And yet, getting into positions like these requires a lot of funding and experience.
I’ll say this right now: If you have a genuine passion for a candidate, it is reasonably easy to get an internship with a campaign. But I want to take a moment to help us sift through the B.S. to understand what an “intern” is, and what a political internship actually does. All of the rules and regulations can be found on the compliance page for internships, but the glaring issue with the internships that get handed to students is that they are essentially the same jobs that are held by many field employees — individuals who are paid to do work interns are doing.
If an intern’s work is what a paid employee could be doing, the intern should then be considered an employee, and this is probably the most egregious part of the entire process. Despite the fact that many individuals do the same work as the field organizers in terms of canvassing or posting on social media, I’ve seen so many students get wrapped into campaigns where they feel like they have to put it before a job or their coursework so they can get ahead. Maybe there are individuals who feel comfortable putting their unpaid internship before school, but not everyone can afford to do so. If an intern is taking the place of what a paid employee can be doing, they are entitled to the minimum wage and overtime wages.
Now, I understand that these criticisms can be — perhaps unfairly — levied on the candidates who already support improving labor practices. The argument might be made that political internships are a practical step in getting these labor policies in place. But if for whatever reason, a candidate has to step on and marginalize a group that already has the potential to be exploited — low socioeconomic status folks — they should not be the ones in office.
At a staff-wide meeting of an internship with a political candidate that I worked with, we were told that if we didn’t go through a “40-hour week,” we should get out of the campaign, for it would jeopardize our letter of recommendation. They verbatim asked us to skip classes during get-out-the-vote drives if it interfered with our class times. These perhaps well-meaning employees understandably have one goal in mind, but this goal shouldn’t replace the importance of taking care of the people who are supporting the campaign. That includes the interns.
As radical as it may sound — side note, it isn’t — I’m merely asking for politicians to pay the individuals and students who want to get involved in the political experience. I understand that not every volunteer can be paid, and many times getting paid internships involves getting experience beforehand. Individuals who volunteer for a political campaign can choose to dedicate their time working in jobs that are less time-intensive, such as phone banking. And I can really see where, if politicians can pay their interns, programs like the LSA Internship Scholarship can help supplement the costs of living on campus during the summer to get these opportunities.
Of course, a scholarship certainly won’t excuse the rhetoric about improving labor relations while ignoring your own, for all intents and purposes, employee. This won’t hurt the politicians who don’t care about their employees and are only trying to support corporations and businesses. What I do know, however, is that if politicians don’t change the status quo, we’ll be stuck in the same idea that has been implied for the past 200 years — people are expendable and a means to an end. Politicians should be better than that.
Ian Leach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.