A nascent campaign against employers' use of unpaid interns is taking aim at what critics call some of the longstanding practice's biggest enablers: colleges that steer students into such programs in exchange for academic credit.
Organizers hope to have mobilizers raise the issue on campuses as students return to school this fall, with a particular emphasis on schools in New York, Washington and Los Angeles. They also want to join up with organized labor as part of a broader coalition focused on workplace issues.
The backlash against working for free - and sometimes paying tuition for the privilege- comes after a federal judge in New York recently ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated federal minimum wage and overtime laws by not paying interns who worked on the 2010 movie "Black Swan." Angry interns have also sued record companies, magazine publishers, modeling agencies and TV talk show hosts.
Leaders of the Fair Pay Campaign, a group organized in 2012 to fight the internships, say they are taking their social media-driven effort right to the top: they plan to press the White House to end its use of unpaid interns.
Getting college credit "is a tangible benefit" of internships, said campaign organizer Mikey Franklin, a 23-year-old British ex-pat who now lives in Washington. "But I can't pay my rent with college credit."
Franklin said he founded the Fair Pay Campaign when he was unable to land a paid political job after working as a campaign organizer on Maryland's 2012 same-sex marriage ballot measure.
"Everybody told me you can't get a job on (Capitol) Hill unless you're an unpaid intern," he said. "The more I looked, I saw it was an incredibly widespread practice."
His allies include University of Nevada-Las Vegas student Jessica Padron, who is trying to defray the $6,500 costs of a four-month Washington internship for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with a crowd-sourced online fundraising campaign. At New York University, a petition drive asks the school to remove unpaid internship listings offered by for-profit businesses. More volunteers are pitching in, he said, although he declined to provide specifics about the campaign's finances.
A recent survey reported that 63 percent of graduating college seniors this year had an internship, the highest level since polling began six years ago. Nearly half the internships were unpaid. The expansion of internships comes as President Barack Obama and Congress have been emphasizing the problem of growing student debt.
The federal Fair Labor Standards Act sets out a six-part test to determine whether an internship can be unpaid. The internship must be similar to "training which would be given in an educational environment," run primarily for the intern's benefit and involve work that doesn't replace that of paid employees.
Defenders of academic-driven internships emphasize the educational benefits of bringing students into the workplace.
"It's a developmental opportunity," said Dianne Lynch, president of Stephens College, a women's school in Columbia, Mo.
Lynch, a former journalist, recalled her own start as a cub reporter at the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, where an unpaid summer internship led to a full-time job on the night police beat.
"I agree that there are organizations that see interns as cheap, unpaid labor," she said. "But I could line up 25 students who could tell you the best learning experience they had was an academic internship."
In Oregon, state lawmakers voted in May to extend workplace civil rights protections to interns, who previously had no legal standing to seek relief from sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination. State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian said businesses that rely on unpaid interns can easily skirt the law by assigning duties normally carried out by paid workers.
"It really drags down the economy by deflating the wages that should be going to workers," he said.
NYU junior Christina Isnardi, who started the campus petition with another student, agrees. As a summer intern on a movie project, her responsibilities included securing the perimeter on closed sets and guarding expensive equipment.
"I didn't get any educational benefit," she said. "I was doing the work of an employee."
Her petition has garnered more than 1,100 signatures. A university spokesman said NYU is "reviewing the types of internships it posts."
On the other hand, Kate Ibarra, a May graduate of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, has had a more fulfilling experience as an unpaid intern at The Franklin Institute science museum.
With a degree in marketing and aspirations of working as a nonprofit fundraiser, she applied for more than 30 post-graduate internships - none of which were paid positions.
"Getting a job at The Franklin Institute is really prestigious. And I know I'll make some good connections," she said. But she wonders about the disadvantage for lower-income students who can't afford to take unpaid jobs.
Many campuses are beginning to wrestle with the issue, said James Tarbox, director of career services at San Diego State University. In 2011, the California State University System passed new rules for evaluating prospective intern sponsors.
"It's a good idea to examine these issues," he said. "In an economy like the one we've just gone through, we would be remiss if we didn't."