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Meet Scabby: Union Advocate, Revolutionary, Giant Disgusting Inflatable Rat

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by Hannah Harkness

Yesterday morning on my Twitter feed, a post from user @jaynooch popped up on my feed with a familiar sight for any city with organized labor: a giant inflatable cartoon rat with festering scab wounds on its stomach. 

The replies all said either some version of “Good job, Scabby!” or “Does that sign in front of the rat say poke ball?” Then because big brother is probably watching, a different inflatable rat post popped up when I switched to Instagram:

I threw in a “good job, Scabby!” on @Jaynooch’s post as I know that these rats are a symbol of union protests, but I hadn’t known that the rat was named Scabby until this point. So I did what I do best: completely ignore what I was supposed to be working on, and instead burned a couple of hours reading information on the history of giant inflatable terrifying rats used for organized labor protests. 

It’d be easy to believe that these rats are native New Yorkers, as NYC is a rat king of both organized protests and actual rats, but these rats were born in Illinois. Scabby the rat was the brainchild of the International Union of Operating Engineers local 150 in 1989. 

The union protestors wanted a disgusting, terrifying symbol that would draw attention to abuse by management. It needed to send a message much louder than a group of people with protest signs – an easy thing to a) drive past without noticing or b) not take the time to figure out the protest in general.

The original balloon makers of Scabby, Big Sky balloons, went back and forth with the protestors who returned a few drafts of the original design saying that it wasn’t scary enough… it needed to be more snarly, more gross. The final version had demonic bug eyes, claws, sharp teeth, and a signature stomach with nipples with festering scab wounds on it. The commitment to the grossness here impresses me, seeing as the rat was not named Scabby yet.

Scabby became the name after a “name the rat” contest was won by Lou Mahieu in January 1990 as a pun on scabs, non-union workers who work during protests. The festering nipples were merely a design element that conveniently lent itself to a labor pun later. 

Big Sky Balloons in Plainfield, Illinois to this day is the #1 producer of union rat balloons. They also produce  “fat cat” balloons featuring a cat with a cigar strangling a worker, cockroach balloons, and some extremely METAL balloons of Cerberus the three headed dog –  which was always my favorite metaphor for bureaucracy.

All of the options/pictures can be found at here. The page states:

Big Sky Balloons and Searchlights, the creator of “Scabby The Rat”™ was originally designed for a Chicago Union in 1990. These rats have multiplied and are found thriving throughout the U.S.A. They can be found anywhere from the streets of New York to the Strip of Las Vegas and along the wharfs of the West Coast. Our rats have been seen from the front page of the Wall Street Journal to the New Yorker Magazine and the New York Times. They have been in hundreds of newspaper articles and even appeared on several T.V. shows such as the Soprano’s, Blue Bloods and The Good Wife.”

The rat brochure is the hardest I’ve laughed at a non-meme image (mostly the air quotes pushed it over). Big Sky… do NOT take this as criticism, this flyer is absolute perfection and if you change it I will be furious. 

Big Sky sells about 100 rats a year ranging from 6-30 feet tall. The most popular tends ones tend to be 12 feet or less due to height restrictions in place for this kind of protesting in some localities. They range from about $2,000-$8,000. 

The symbol has been effective. While some union protestors have said that people still don’t know what the rat means (apparently some people think it means the building has rats and that occasion was worth erecting a $2,000 balloon), it’s become a well-known symbol for unfair or cruel practices by management or the hiring of non-union labor.

The “Scabby the Rat” Twitter account, a source for pro-union news states:

The symbol of Scabby appearing at a strike is a clear signal to the public that the management is attacking its workforce and the public by using unfair and unsafe practices.  Such signals are not often clearly received by the public, in part because labor relations is not a simple topic. A 12-foot inflatable rat helps to make the message much clearer.”

The rats are sold nationwide, and occasionally overseas, with the first rat popping up in the UK at the Grangemouth Oil Refinery dispute in 2013. While Big Sky are the OG producers of inflatable union rats, other companies produce knockoff rat balloons as well. Variants have been spotted, including a Trump rat that popped up outside of an annual Republican conference in Baltimore in September 2019. This rat depiction of Trump was suspected to be a retort to him calling Baltimore a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” where “no human being would want to live.”

Nobody likes being called a giant rat with festering scab nipples, especially those in positions of power, so unsurprisingly Scabby has undergone several breeds of attack from the companies (and union busters in general) that find themselves playing host to one of the balloons. There have been instances of the rats getting stabbed by employers, including one employer who over dramatically went outside and murdered Scabby with a butcher knife. An executive at Empire State realty famously retaliated in 2017 by paying for a much larger inflatable cat to counter the rat, which splits me down the middle with hatred for corporate evil vs. respect for a well-executed large-scale trolling move. 

But of course, street justice is not where the primary fight against the rats takes place. Lawmakers have been spending super-productive time arguing the legality of the rat balloons since their invention.  Century Foundation fellow Moshe Marvit tweeted that the rat is discussed in 41 NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) decisions and 20 federal court decisions.

Like any other protest, the fight against the rats is framed as a concern for public disturbance/intimidation, or “yes you can call us out for being abusive money hungry psychopaths, but please be polite about it – the giant drooling rat is scaring the children.”  The legislature that is referenced in these cases is Section 8(b)(4)(ii)(B) of the NLRA which outlines the parameters of what is considered  unlawful intimidation/coercion of secondary employers. 

The decision makers on the legality of these rats are the National Labor Relations Board. According to :

The NLRB is a small, independent agency charged with safeguarding the rights of workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining. The agency’s board, by statute, has five members (with a minimum of three members required for a quorum) who serve five-year terms. The current board is composed of four members: three Trump appointees—Chairman John Ring (a former management lawyer), William Emanuel (another former management lawyer), and Marvin Kaplan (a former Republican Hill staffer)—and one holdover Democratic appointee, Lauren McFerran (a former Democratic Hill staffer and union-side labor lawyer). McFerran’s term expires on December 16, 2019. If action is not taken before the expiration of member McFerran’s term, the board will drop to three Republican members, with no Democratic appointees on the board.”

In 2011, the Obama-era NLRB upheld a decision defending the rats. More on this in excellently titled National Law Review article: “The Obama Board and the Giant Rat: NLRB Holds That Union Use of Inflatable Monster Rat Does Not Constitute Unlawful Activity Directed At A Secondary Employer”

A case which was brought under the premise that the giant rats “negatively impact” the business an employer who is paying the contractors who hire the non union labor and not the non-union laborers themselves. The rats were protected as 1st amendment speech, with only one Republican representative dissenting (Bryan Hayes) stating it could be considered coercive:

“Considered in the abstract, or viewed from afar, the display of a gigantic inflated rat might seem more comical than coercive…Viewed from nearby, the picture is altogether different and anything but amusing. For pedestrians or occupants of cars passing in the shadow of a rat balloon, which proclaims the presence of a “rat employer” and is surrounded by union agents, the message is unmistakably confrontational and coercive.”

As an aside, I think it’s insulting to the residents of major US cities to say that we are intimidated  by rats, especially in NYC where I personally have to play a low-budget version of Frogger to jump over them when I’m walking down certain blocks. The communications director for the local 150 of Engineers Edward Maher said it best:

“Threatening? Coercive? Let’s remember-it’s a balloon.”

But of course, with the changing of the guard came the re-examination of the extremely important inflatable rat issue. Peter B. Robb was appointed as general counsel to the NLRB by Trump after a career of advocating for management in union disputes, and he has since then issued several memorandums on the rats. Now the rats are expected to be up for trial again after a protest at Fairfield Inn in Philadelphia June 2019.

The rats were put in front of the hotel to protest the hotel’s employment of a contractor that uses non-union electricians. The Fairfield objected, stating that they were a neutral employer and the combination of giant rats and bullhorns constituted illegal picketing. While a stop was put to the bullhorns, the case of the rats has now been elevated back to the NLRB. 

The argument against these rats smacks of the typical conservative argument for “civility” when being called out too harshly. I love these rats and associated imagery (including rat hard hat stickers) because they are a visceral mirror image of the ugliness behind exploitative corporate practices. While a smattering of signs can be raising awareness for anything (especially in NYC where there is a parade, protest, or vigil every 5 minutes), the rat is a signal flare that gets “good job, Scabby” from the internet and honks and waves from motorists.

There is something extremely punk about Scabby – it’s an unapologetic, impossible-to-ignore symbol intentionally designed to be as gross and upsetting as possible. Critics will say that more is done indoors with policy makers, but policy makers are not the ones doing the labor. The brilliance of the rats is that they can pop up in the back of the pickup truck of any contractor and driven directly onto the site (and frequently are: the balloons 12 feet and under are popular specifically because they fit in truck beds). Posterboards can be ignored, but as the brochure says, rats get ATTENTION! 

Hopefully the NLRB respects the 1st amendment (although I’m not holding my breath due to their current track record of rolling back labor union rights).

But until then… Good job, Scabby. 

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