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Introducing The First Non-Medical Intern's Union In The U.S.

Nobody expects an internship to make one rich — but for many, the entire experience has become simply unattainable.

Reynaldo Leal tells NPR doing an internship was impossible. "I was going to school on the GI Bill, and when it came time to look at internships I couldn't make the pay (or lack of pay) work when it came to providing for my family," Leal says. "A couple of weeks of not getting paid meant affecting my family's budget to the point of not paying rent or bills. It seemed like internships were for kids with no major responsibilities."

The debate has been heating up for years. The main argument against internships is that they filter out lower income students who may lack in means what they have in potential. As NPR's Anya Kamenetz wrote in a 2006 op-ed for the New York Times: "They fly in the face of meritocracy — you must be rich enough to work without pay to get your foot in the door. And they enhance the power of social connections over ability to match people with desirable careers."

At the American Teachers Federation (AFT), the union's interns are putting their foot down. After about a year of negotiating, they have voted to form their own union. This will be the first non-medical intern's union in the U.S.

Lou Wolf is an organizer with The Office And Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU). He says this is a historic vote. "Low paid temporary work has become the norm," Wolf says. Interns "need a living wage, and they are not paid one. And many of the laws do not protect interns."

Perhaps the most high profile case involving unpaid interns was at Condé Nast last year. The publisher had to pay over five million dollars to settle a class-action suit by former interns who claimed they'd been underpaid.

And while the premise of an internship is that it provides valuable experience, and employment potential in exchange for labor, many have raised concerns over internships that are menial and exploitative. What's more, some recent evidence suggests, poor and middle class students are more likely to get stuck at unpaid jobs.

The intern union will begin negotiations with AFT in July. They will be able to bargain over everything from pay, to hours and benefits.

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