Master students at the University of Michigan School of Social Work (U-M SSW) have created a student group called Fair Labor Organizing. The students argue that the required field hours constitute labor; that uncompensated or poorly compensated yet required labor is exploitative; and that exploitation contradicts the NASW Code of Ethics’ call for social and economic justice. The group believes that the tolerance of unpaid internships in MSW and BSW programs contributes to low wages for social workers, hurts the cause of diversifying the field, and diminishes social workers’ potential to invest personally in the many causes that are important to them.
The campaign began this past summer, when many U-M MSW students were taking classes and working their field education hours during the summer semester of the school’s 16-month track. In July, students put out a petition that received over 550 signatures calling for the fair compensation of social workers for their field practicum hours. About half the signatures came from current students at the U-M SSW, and half poured in from the school’s alumni, social work students at other schools, and other social workers in the field as well as friends, peers, and family of social workers. This broad-based support illustrated the importance of this issue to a wide range of people.
The group has already seen some success in its advocacy efforts. Following the petition, the school’s administration held a town hall where students shared concerns about their financial insecurity as well as their related mental, emotional, and physical health issues. In response to students’ concerns, the school addressed a tuition policy that caused part-time students to pay more than full-time students for their degrees. Through collaboration with the University of Michigan Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), the University’s graduate student labor union, proper compensation was won in October for social work students co-facilitating classes at the U-M SSW. However, many other issues remain unaddressed, including the failure to recognize the ethical implications of requiring students to work for free.
Why hasn’t this problem been solved? One major concern is the financial logistics. Where will the money come from? Who will pay? Suggestions have included encouraging the school’s field office to ask organizations to compensate their interns if they have the funds. If the organizations do not have this financial flexibility, the group calls for the U-M SSW to compensate students. Some suggestions for the school include working to adjust the rules around work-study and field placements so that students can receive work-study funding for their field hours; enrolling fewer students so the school’s available funding can go farther for each student; and fundraising specifically for the fair compensation of students for their labor.
This conversation may have started among masters students at the University of Michigan, but the Fair Labor Organizing group hopes that social workers everywhere will reflect on these issues and do what they can to advocate for social and economic justice across the field of social work and beyond. Rather than skirting the line between legality and exploitation, social workers should be raising the bar on labor issues and setting an example for all other industries.
If you are interested in getting involved, please email Fair Labor Organizing at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit the group’s website at www.fairlaborsocialwork.weebly.com, or like the group’s page on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/fairlabororganization/.