Five years ago, Eric Glatt, an accounting intern who worked on the Darren Aronofsky movie, “Black Swan,” became one of the lead plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight. The essential claim was that the studio’s unpaid internships violated labor law, and were essentially a way for Fox to get free labor.
Fox has settled the suit and agreed to pay some former interns a small amount of money. But, for Glatt, this suit wasn't about the money. And his mission to combat what he considers to be "wage theft" continues to this day.
Glatt ended up leaving the entertainment business to get a law degree and s now a staff attorney with the ACLU in Anchorage, Alaska. He joined The Frame to discuss the ongoing problems that face unpaid interns.
A lot of workers in Hollywood come in as unpaid interns. Is part of the issue for those people that the barriers to entry are so high in entertainment that you essentially have to take one for the team and not get paid for your work to get your foot in the door?
Well, "take one for the team" sounds like we're discussing socialism, when in fact what we're discussing is hardboiled capitalism. If there are more people who are interested in working in a field than there are jobs, there's going to be some filtering one way or the other. The idea that the filter should begin with who can afford to work for free to me is fundamentally unjust, and, as I read the law, not legally permissible.
The companies who are not paying their interns would argue, unsuccessfully, that this is a kind of training and educational process. What you're arguing is that it's wage theft.
Right. And it's a practice without boundary. If Congress passed a law that stipulated that employers could have students who were engaged in meaningful learning activities defined by certain criteria, and in that circumstance if all those criteria are met [and] that student intern did not need to get paid, that would be a meaningful conversation that I think needs to be had. But in practice, there is no limit. As long as someone is willing to accept being called an intern and, as you said, if there are more people looking to get their foot in the door than there are doors, some people will be willing to do it for free, and that's just not right.
Was it important for you to bring up the class issue — that some people can afford to be unpaid interns — even if that wasn't important to the litigation itself?
Oh yeah, that was definitely one of the driving factors for me, that there's a structural bias in the practice: people who cannot afford to work for free will simply not even pursue careers in some industries. I realize that if you cannot afford to work for free and don't apply to an unpaid internship, you will not have legal standing to challenge it. That's one reason why I realized that I was, in a sense, in a unique position to do something on behalf of people who would never be in a position to take legal action.
What do you hope to see with internships in Hollywood going forward?
It's hard to know, with all the major studios and networks now stating that they pay all the corporate interns, that [the] rule is being adhered to in individual productions. It would be great to see parent corporations take more interest in making sure that at the lowest level of their organizations and the productions companies they do business with, these principles are being respected.