Political Animal


December 20, 2012 1:24 PM Charlie Rose Settles Intern Class Action for $250,000

By Samuel Knight

When one thinks of labor exploitation, PBS doesn’t typically come to mind.

Yet an unpaid intern named Lucy Bickerton filed a class action suit against Charlie Rose’s production company earlier this year, alleging that it violated New York state labor law.

Today, the New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse reported that Rose is settling for up to $250,000. The terms of the deal mean that interns who worked for Rose’s company for one semester between March 14, 2006 and October 1, 2012 are entitled to $1,100 each — $110 a week, up to a maximum of 10 weeks.

In an interview with Greenhouse, Bickerton described the deal as “a really important moment for this movement against unpaid internships.”

Symbolically, perhaps. But because the case was settled, no legal precedent was set. And even if one had been set, it would have only been under New York state law.

A more significant case in the ongoing dispute between unpaid labor and capital is the class action lawsuit that former Harper’s Bazaar intern Diana Wang brought against the company. She alleged that the magazine broke both New York and federal laws.

Harper’s parent company, Hearst Corporation, appears to be gearing up for a fight, too. In late November, it sent a mass email “collecting stories from interns who valued the opportunities and experiences they received from their internships.”

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.


  • exlibra on December 20, 2012 2:50 PM:

    The unpaid internship is reminiscent of the old (Middle Ages) guild system in Europe: the first seven years (7-14) not only you didn't get paid, but your parents paid the master for your apprenticeship. The second seven years (14-21), as the journeyman, you still didn't get paid; you worked for your room and board and, if your master was kind (not always a given), you might be allowed to keep the money for any outside jobs you did in your own time. That was also the time when you might have ventured from one master's workshop to another, to broaden up your skill set (hence the term "journeyman")

    It was only after you passed a guild exam (and the guild's masters made sure not too many of journeymen did pass, keeping the competition low), that you were allowed to set up your own workshop as a master. Those who didn't pass the exam and didn't want to stay in their current master's workshop, either, could set up on their own, but were not likely to get the best jobs -- a bit like unlicensed contractors today.

    The current internship resembles the second seven year training period -- journeyman years. Except, of course, you don't get the free room and board, so that you also have a whiff of the first seven years (you're paying for the training).

    Darling Craptcha, as on target as ever: "mFTechn streets" :)

  • dweb on December 20, 2012 3:30 PM:

    CAPTCHA is the devil's word processor

  • dweb on December 20, 2012 3:32 PM:

    Ah the many ways businesses try to get things for free....

    Unpaid internships is just one of them.


    Enter our publication or website photo contest. Your chance for recognition and fame. Our chance to score some great shots for free. (Read the fine print. Resist the belief that winning carries any kind of benefit. You have a skill? Get paid for it.

  • Pontormo on December 20, 2012 4:03 PM:

    Why be surprised that PBS would do something morally suspect?
    They are largely the creature of large and morally suspect corporations.
    Ever since that became the case their news program has become bland and
    servile to the corporate ethos.

  • waddanut on December 20, 2012 5:05 PM:

    Unpaid internship may not be fair but hardly unusual. If a person does not like the arrangement before they agree to work there, the person always has the option to go somewhere else to work.

    If there were no notice before, then I could see a legitimate complaint.

  • HenryW on December 20, 2012 6:03 PM:

    It's only a settlement (and not a particularly big one), but it has greater value than it would otherwise because it will attract attention because of its target. Employers are already getting spooked on this issue; at this point it is just as if not more important to get interns to stop thinking that it's okay to work for free.

    As others have pointed out, there is a pernicious class bias in this practice, since children of well-off parents are better able to work for free for six months. And what do they get in return? Visibility and a leg up in hiring decisions in the future. So it is not, as waddanut sees it, as just a private matter affecting the two parties to the deal.

    Which is, of course, always the case. There are many people willing to work for less than minimum wage. It hardly matters what their reasons are, because the effect on others is the same whether they are accepting less than what the law requires out of desperation or ignorance or indifference. We need to get that point across to these kids who haven't developed the long view--and punish players such as Charlie Rose who take advantage of them.

  • James M on December 20, 2012 10:03 PM:

    This whole 'unpaid intern' thing is a total crock. It is just a new class of discriminated* workers. I was an intern at Citibank in the summer after my 1st year in business school. I was paid: quite well at the time. We were given cushy assignments and taken out to free lunches, etc. In fact, we even had a special lunch with the CEO of Citibank (Walter Wriston, at that time).
    * Ironically, in some ways it is also a privileged class because only students/graduates from well-off families can afford to work for free for months.

    Unpaid internships only contribute to the growing exploitation of U.S. workers and to ever-widening income disparity.

    p.s., If PA has decided to keep CAPTCA, they should make some official announcement, especially after promising to remove it. If you promote openness and transparency you should practice what you preach!

  • emjayay on December 20, 2012 10:11 PM:

    exlibra: excellent analogy
    waddanut: And if you're black, how about slavery? Supply and demand, you know.
    HenryW: Yes, but more than "a leg up".

    You would never see "will train" in a job announcement in today's market. You will only see jobs that require having done the same job already. Unpaid interns have to live on nothing in someplace like NYC where a crappy studio apartment (not a suburban studio, but actually one small room with a tiny minimal kitchen) is $1800 a month or more. Or a cheapskat intern can get a studio for $900 in a neighborhood an hour from Manhattan by subway where they are the only non-immigrant family around for miles. I live there. Trust me, sn twentysomethings are willing to do that.

    So who gets any job? Former interns.

    The minimum wage should be raised to equal what it was 40 years ago (!) which would mean raising it $2 an hour. And it should be illegal to have anyone working for free.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on December 21, 2012 9:10 AM:

    Ah, the unpaid internship. Actually one industry co-conspirator are colleges and universities.

    I work at a grad school in DC, and one of the only barriers that keeps our students from bee-lining to an unpaid internship is the fact that our school does not award academic credit to internships (paid or unpaid). If I've got this right, new regulations stipulate that would-be employers can't hire un-paid interns unless they are being given academic credit. Which makes sense because the students need to benefit financially or academically. Otherwise it's just slave labor really.

    So I think it would be wise for colleges, as a whole, to stop awarding academic credit to students who enslave themselves. I'd like to think that this would cut off the industry's flow of free labor. But then again they'd probably re-title their un-paid interns something bombastic like "corporate volunteers". Go figure...

    But, believe it or not, some of our students will find anyway possible to break into unpaid servitude if they think it will land them a paid job after graduation. And there it is...