A Funny Thing Happened When the AFT’s Interns Wanted to Organize

So it turns out interns at the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s the second-largest education labor union, actually formed their own union last year. While pundits often (correctly) present interns as one of the most exploited groups in America, in this case the organizing worked pretty well. According to a piece at the Washington Post:

Haley Quinn, a 20-year-old student at New York University, thought life could be a lot better for the nation’s youngest professionals. Last summer, while interning at the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C., she did what seemed natural in that environment: Organizing her co-workers.

Unlike in many places, she didn’t have much trouble signing her coworkers up

“There are turnover challenges, but that’s not unique to internships,” says Quinn, noting that plenty of professions — retail, restaurants — have people cycling in and out. She’s the only person left from the cohort she started with last summer, which meant she had to talk to each new person about the project.

“Still, it wasn’t a hard sell. AFT’s interns make $12 an hour if they’re undergraduates and $14 an hour if they’re graduate students — less than the $15 that the labor movement has been calling for.

Quinn said that she was organizing because “you can’t pay rent and all of your expenses on what interns make.” Some places saw this as deeply ironic, or even hypocritical. According to this piece over at education reform blog EduNation:

The complaints of Quinn and her fellow interns speak volumes about how AFT goes about its business. The union touts itself as a protector of employee rights – fair wages, good working conditions, etc, while taking advantage of a steady stream of low-wage labor.

Union President Randi Weingarten loves to go on about how the “1%” exploits labor….And now it appears, her organization is guilty of the same “substandard” treatment of employees that she accuses other companies of. Weingarten’s own personal army of interns aren’t making a living wage in one of the most expensive cities in the country.

The title of the piece is “The AFT – A Union Blocking the Formation of Another Union.” That’s pretty serious, right?

organize

Not really. According to that Post article:

Interns at a labor union come pre-prepped for this kind of thing, and management was extremely sympathetic, so it wasn’t difficult. Last week, 15 AFT interns voted to join the Office and Professional Employees International Union, becoming what they’re pretty sure is the first intern union outside a medical context in the United States.

The AFT didn’t block the formation of that union at all. The interns went right ahead and formed the union without any problems from AFT leadership.

Many progressive organizations are sensitive to issues of economic inequality have no problem whatsoever with staff organizing. The interests of labor and management are structurally at odds in any organization, no matter its philosophical objectives, but that’s what labor unions are for, to address such things through negotiation.

Back during the beginning of the Great Recession, I was working at an organization with very progressive management that also had a labor union. Our health insurance company raised premiums, which cost the organization more. And so HR decided that we would all have to pay more money when we went to doctor’s office visits. That’s not an unreasonable request, sure, and at most places the employees would just eat it. Was it entirely fair? Well that’s debatable. And so the union went back and objected. We had some negotiation and in the end the union and management agreed that it would cover the difference in health care costs by not giving automatic cost-of-living adjustments to top-level management.

It’s not hypocritical for a labor union to pay its interns $14 an hour (and that’s only slightly less than the apparent living wage for Washington, D.C.). That’s really pretty good for an internship. The fact that it turns out to be less than what interns really prefer to survive? Well, right, that’s why the interns formed a damn union.

This doesn’t mean that the AFT “is guilty of the same ‘substandard’ treatment of employees that she accuses other companies of.” It means the union had a standard wage that could use an update. Management at any organization, even a very liberal one, does not magically provide sufficient compensation to its employees. That’s what a good union does, negotiates with management to make the interests of its members known and come to a compromise that works for all.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer