Scabby is a giant inflatable rodent, up to 25 feet tall, with angry red eyes, exceptionally prominent front teeth and sharp claws. Created some 30 years ago in Chicago, it’s a favorite device of unions trying to draw attention to their grievances, and it works. “Before, you could drive by and see six guys with picket signs and probably never notice them,” James Allen, president of District Council 1 of the International Union of Bricklayers, told the Tribune last year. Scabby is harder to miss…
But the NLRB’s general counsel, appointed by Donald Trump, is not smiling. Peter Robb, previously a management lawyer, “hates the rat,” one unidentified senior NRLB official told Bloomberg Law. At his direction, the agency is trying to eradicate Scabby.
The effort isn’t likely to succeed. Under Barack Obama, the NLRB ruled that putting this huge air-filled mascot outside the entrance of a hospital, accompanied by a union member holding a leaflet, was a form of free expression protected by the First Amendment…
“The rat balloon itself was symbolic speech,” said the board. “It certainly drew attention to the union’s grievance and cast aspersions on (the nonunion employer), but we perceive nothing in the location, size or features of the balloon that were likely to frighten those entering the hospital, disturb patients or their families, or otherwise interfere with the business of the hospital.”
Read a little more on how Scabby was developed in the Chicago area in this 2018 blog post.
Having seen Scabby in action several times, there at least three reasons the symbol works:
- No one wants to be associated with a rat. Even if there are people who like rats as pets, they are not viewed as cuddly or likeable creatures in the same way that many others animals are. A rat is a negative symbol, a reminder of urban squalor or dishonorable behavior.
- The size of Scabby and the particular look is not pleasant. This is not just a rat on a sign that is a cartoonish figure; this is a large inflatable that towers over the sidewalk. The eyes are red, teeth are showing, front legs are out. This is not a pleasant figure to look at.
- Putting #1 and #2 together, organizations or employers would not like the connotation of the inflatable rat nor the presence of it in front of what they hope to present as a welcoming or pleasant place of business or activity.
This means Scabby could help attract attention to a labor cause. As noted in the story above, it is a visceral image that grabs the attention of people passing by. Without such a large symbol, it could take a lot more work to garner attention including larger pickets or significant media attention. Whether the prolonged presence of Scabby leads to a better outcome for the union or employees is another matter.