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New Allies and a Comic Book to Help Fight Wage Theft

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Millions of workers, over 40 percent of low-wage workers in the United States--are routinely cheated, victims of wage theft.

Last week the New York Times reported on an antitrust lawsuit pitting 64,613 software engineers against Google, Apple, Intel and Adobe. The Time's editorial board labeled the company's action white-collar wage theft.

While it's not the same as that done to the working poor, who are forced to work off the clock, get paid subminimum wages, cheated out of overtime pay or denied their tips, these engineers now know how it feels to have money that should have flowed to them in the form of wages instead going to boss. And it should help high-wage workers sympathize with the working poor.

Organizers should be reaching out to these high wage workers and encourage them to join with the low-wage worker advocacy groups that have been popping up nationwide, protesting sub-minimum wage pay, unpaid work, false payroll records, overtime without time-and-a-half pay, work expenses that are not fully reimbursed and paychecks that bounce.

Raising the fury of low-wage business owners, they have protested against low wages at Capital Grille restaurants, against proposed tax breaks to low-wage companies like Apple and last May, New York City fast food workers released a report, Fast Food Forward, detailing unchecked wage theft in their industry.

Their report included results from a survey of 500 of the city's fast food workers, which found 84 of their employers had committed legal violations. Saru Jayaraman, a co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, has organized over 5,500 New York City restaurant workers uniting them to fight the restaurant industry. Its annual dining guide, has successful force the end of wage theft by giving a thumbs down to restaurants that treat employees poorly by, for example, avoiding paid sick days.

But even with potentially middle class allies, as community organizers know, it's very hard to mobilize the working poor who don't know their rights, don't speak English, dread deportation, and fear being fired.

Advocates now have an unusual new tool at their disposal: a comic book. Wage Theft: Crime and Justice Comics is a comic that chronicles the experience of low wage victims of wage theft and guides workers and potential allies towards a path for justice.

The authors writer and theologian Jeffry Odell Korgen (The True Cost of Low Prices: The Violence of Globalization) and author/illustrator Kevin C. Pyle (Prison Town and Take What You Can Carry) conducted interviews in the Houston, Texas area in order to create personal stories of victims exploited by wage theft and their attempts to end it. They interviewed most of the workers and organizers profiled in the comic and have vividly displayed their struggle to support families, who work hard, play by the rules, but having their wages stolen by employers. A domestic worker quoted in the comic, says, after a long protracted campaign to recover thousands of dollars stolen from her,"It's about justice, because we taught our employer that even though we don't have legal status, we do have rights."

Printed in English and Spanish, Wage Theft Comics is published by Interfaith Worker Justice, with the help of Fe Y Justicia, a worker center in the Houston area, as well as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

Korgen and Pyle intersperse these stories with infographics that illuminate the full scope and prevalence of the problem and the way workers can overcome the barriers in their way as they seek justice. Translating statistics into visuals has the advantage of taking something abstract and making it quickly understandable and memorable. One great example is the author's "Path to Justice: The Wage Theft Game." It's an actual board game that workers can play as a way to educate themselves about the complexities and uncertainties they may face when they seek to recover their stolen wages. It gives the workers a realistic idea of what they are up against.

According to organizers, the comic has been hit with the workers."People's faces just light up when they see that we're handing them a comic book. Perhaps because they're expecting a poorly designed flyer or an unapproachable text-heavy report," said Laura Perez-Boston of Fe Y Justicia. "Those whose stories were featured asked for copies not just because they were proud that their fight was highlighted, but mainly to help cut through the misunderstanding and apathy they have encountered in their peers."

In addition to this empowering effect, the comic has been an effective outreach tool. At Fe Y Justicia, workers participate in the actions and advocacy and have distributed the comics in neighborhoods, at community health fairs, and the center's workshops."We've even brought them to meetings with council members and the Mayor in advocating for consequences for companies with a documented record of wage theft."

On November 20th, 2013, two years of dogged work by Fe Y Justicia and their allies paid off when the Houston City Council passed a Wage Theft municipal ordinance. "It's hard to measure what role the comic book played in that, but certainly it was one critical tool in educating the public and sharing the story of the multiple levels and ripples of impact that wage theft has on our economy," said Director Perez- Boston. So perhaps, along with protests, lobbying, and other traditional weapons, activists will soon be adding comics as another arrow in their quiver in the fight to end wage theft.

John Atlas, president of the National Housing Institute and author of Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Group (Vanderbilt University Press, 2010), is working on an ACORN documentary with Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard.