Thursday, February 20, 2014

At least slaves got room and board

While perusing one of my favorite news sources yesterday, I came across a longish article describing the difficulty college graduates are having in securing paid employment.  Supposedly, the economy is so bad, that companies are not hiring the newly diplomaed.  Which is not the same thing as saying that companies are missing out on the intelligence, energy, and education that those youngsters can bring to the workplace. No.  Not at all.  Rather, businesses have devised a way to have the cake without paying the baker by offering unpaid internships.

Internships are nothing new.  They've been around since at least the middle of the last century and serve the dual purpose of allowing an employer to assess the performance of a potential employee, while permitting a student to try out a potential career.  Typically, internships provided either money or academic credit -- or sometimes both -- in exchange for the student's labor.  In legal terms, internships amounted to a quid pro quo: work in exchange for compensation.

The unpaid work being offered to today's college graduates fits neither the modern model of scholarly internships, nor the ancient models of slavery, apprenticeship, or indentured servitude.  In the latter, individuals were provided at least food, shelter, and clothing in exchange for their labor.  Many of today's college graduate interns, however, provide labor in exchange for nothing: not room, not board, not even educational credit.

Anyone who is familiar with the struggles of workers and unions in the last two centuries, can only marvel at the giant steps backwards that the labor movement in this nation is experiencing, as evidenced in the plight of today's unpaid interns.

At one time, it was common for indentured servants to work on farms or in factories to repay the cost of steerage to the New World.  Miners toiled long hours, putting both their health and safety at risk, in exchange for "scrip" that had no value outside the company store.  Workers sweat, and bled, and died in a multitude of horrific working conditions; in exchange, they were rewarded with delayed pay days, if they were lucky, and no pay if they weren't.  For in the heyday of company towns, workers frequently ended up owing the employer by the time the cost of housing, food, tools, and other equipment was deducted from their pay.

Through agitation and unionization, workers managed, by the 1950's, to level the playing field between labor and management.  Mining and timbering states like West Virginia enacted laws requiring employers to pay workers in U.S. currency and at least every two weeks.  Workers unionized, and those unions organized safety committees to improve working conditions.  Federal laws were put in place to protect workers who reported unsafe or unhealthful work practices.  Other laws protected employees' right to unionize and to bargain collectively with their employers.

By the time all the commencement speeches are finished this year, graduates should be walking into a work world that is at least as safe and economically productive as that which existed in the days of their grandparents.  But they aren't.  And they aren't because the crowd that has been dubbed "the one percenters" have managed to hijack the electoral process and undo a good portion of the legislation that was designed to protect the right to unionize and bargain collectively.  We won't even get into the ill-advised trade agreements that decimated manufacturing in the United States, and repeal of banking and investing laws needed to prevent the Great Recession.

Nope.  This generation has found itself launched back in time to a much less employee-friendly place.  But history is a good teacher.  And it teaches that sometimes you have to break a few windows, start a few fires, bruise a few knuckles to make yourself heard and taken seriously.  Whether this generation has the gumption to wrest back that which had already been hard won is yet to be seen.  But I'm thinking it might be time to start lighting the torches, sharpening the pitchforks, gathering the feathers, and boiling the tar.




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