But what happens after you sue a powerful media company? Even if you win -- do you lose? AOL Jobs spoke with Lucy Bickerton (pictured above at far right), who successfully settled with the PBS show "Charlie Rose" in December 2012 on behalf of over 200 unpaid interns, about what it's really like to take on an industry.
What made you decide to file your lawsuit?
I'm really good friends with Eric Glatt [the former unpaid intern who recently won his case against Fox Searchlight Pictures], because we were both part of a group of Wesleyan alums in the entertainment industry. He kind of inspired me to do it. It just seemed like this issue was on no one's radar. I didn't do this for the money; I'm not getting that much money anyway. And I didn't expect to win. I just knew that -- talking to Eric -- that more people needed to do it.
Was your experience at the "Charlie Rose" show really bad?
It wasn't that my experience was negative, like "Oh no, they made me wash dishes, wah!" I learned a lot, and I ended up getting freelance work afterwards. I just believe the positions the interns were holding would normally be paid, and should be paid. They were full-time production jobs. I just think it's illegal. It violates labor laws. There's a reason labor laws exist.
I really believe that unpaid internships were starting to replace entry-level jobs. Yes, unpaid interns are getting something from the experience, and they have to pay their dues. But the wage issue really trickles up; if you're starting at zero, you're hurting everyone. And they destroy any sense of meritocracy about it, in terms of class. Women also do a lot more unpaid internships than men.
Were you worried that it would negatively impact your career?
I don't think people paid that much attention to the name of a person filing a lawsuit. If somebody read one New York Times article about my lawsuit, and a year later interviewed me for a job, I don't think they'd remember. Of course, if they Googled me they'd come up with hundreds of results. But really, if my employer has a huge problem with that, then I'm not interested in working with them. That's a tell-tale sign of a moral world that I don't want to be a part of as an employee.
Are you still working in the media?
No, I'm now in a post-bac pre-med program, and I knew at the time that I was going to be changing paths anyway, and disappearing into school life for a few years. So those repercussions were less important to me.
No, but I do feel like that experience was not out of line with how I feel labor is treated in media and entertainment. As an industry, it doesn't give a lot of room to employees to be humans with personal needs. It's very demanding, but doesn't give the financial rewards that other demanding industries do. I think it treats people as a little disposable in that respect.
You worked in film production for a couple of years after graduation. What was the last straw for you, that made you change your mind about that career?
I was working on this feature film, and the producer became kind of my mentor. I really looked up to her. I really thought: She's a person I want to be. I want to have her career. But she was actually struggling in her career at that point, and could only keep it together because she had family money.
I realized that I could slave away for years and years and years, and there could be this sudden turn. I don't have family resources that could rescue me from that situation. Finally, the producer ran out of money, and basically replaced me with an unpaid intern.
You reached a settlement with the "Charlie Rose" show. So how much did you actually receive in the settlement?
There's $250,000 available, and 200-plus individuals who are eligible to get some of that money. It sounds like "Lucy is getting $250,000!" I wish. We'll all receive around $1,100 or $1,200, which isn't much money at all. After taxes, that's not even a month of rent!
There were a few other interns who reached out, and it looked like at least one other person would join me -- but I think they were nervous. It's a personal cost-benefit-analysis to go through. I certainly wasn't going to push that on anyone.
Do you think unpaid internships will ever really go away, given that they're such a part of the business?
This practice didn't used to be so widespread. People didn't used to expect this. And especially now, academic institutions are building internships into the academic experience so readily, even collecting money from their students for free work they've given away. It's become so institutionalized. But that's up to corporations to figure out how to monetize their products, not up to a bunch of students to be willing to subsidize it.
Do you feel the lawsuits make a difference?
I just felt like it was really necessary, to stop this tide of internships replacing entry-level jobs, for more people to file these lawsuits. When Eric filed his lawsuit against Fox Searchlight, the gesture was just really meaningful. It's giving other people the encouragement they need. And how amazing. How amazing that he won.
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