How a giant inflatable rat became the face of the American labor movement

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The 10-foot-tall rat loomed over the entrance to the RV trade show in Elkhart, Indiana, the “RV Capital of the World.” It was 10 feet high, and its beaded eyes and snarling fangs alerted those present that at least one company was not playing nicely with union organizers. Depending on who you asked, the giant inflatable rodent was either a threat or a rallying cry. But to its owners – members of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 150 – it was just Scabby, a cherished symbol of the labor movement.

Since the late 1980’s, unions have been using Scabby to disgrace business owners who don’t want to make a fair deal with workers. “From the very beginning, you could pick for a company, have workers in tents in the winter, and a barrel full of wood and a fire to keep warm. You wouldn’t get as much attention from the owners as you did when you had Scabby because it’s an attack on their brand, ”said Jim Sweeney, president of IUOE Local 150. Scabby embarrassed business owners and attracted unwanted attention from passers-by. And shyness turned out to be a powerful force for union organizers.

Sweeney helped create the character in 1988 as a way to reclaim workers ‘power from the notorious Reagan anti-workers’ government. The first version was a hairy costume worn by union organizers. “We soon found out that if it’s 90 degrees outside and you put on a heavy wool Scabby suit, it can get really gross in there,” says Sweeney. The union then created a medium-sized inflatable rat that stood on top of a car (the “rat patrol”). The car was fun – a statement! – but they still wanted something taller. Finally, they commissioned Big Sky Balloons to make a huge inflatable Scabby.

Today, in labor hubs such as Chicago and New York City, the rat is a well-known symbol of worker power. Its size ranges from six to 25 feet in length and costs anywhere from $ 2,000 to $ 10,000. But even the little Scabies is hard to ignore. The rat has red, dark-rimmed eyes, yellowing buck teeth and sharp fangs, with claws outstretched at the front. Big Sky also offers a corporate ‘fat cat’ balloon, as well as a ‘greedy pig’, although those are less commonly seen.

As an emblem of workers’ power, Scabby has been hugely successful, angered business owners, and spread awareness about its cause. Perhaps for that reason, Scabby has been under threat of extermination in recent years, especially during the Trump administration. Peter Robb, the former National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) general counsel, tried to ban the use of Scabby in some situations, citing a lawsuit over the rat’s presence on the RV exchange in 2018.

According to a briefing from the general counsel of the NLRBplaced the IUOE Scabby at the entrance to the show, next to two banners, one of which called out a company called Lippert Components for harboring rat contractors (someone who refuses to work with union workers or treats workers badly). “The inflatable rat was particularly menacing and scary, it was ten feet tall and had red eyes and sharp fangs and claws,” claims the short – a description that probably delighted union organizers.

Robb tried to say that Scabby’s presence on the show was “so intimidating” it could “coerce third parties unrelated to the argument, like the RV company contractors.” according to HuffPost. Such coercion would be an illegal secondary boycott.

Fortunately for Scabby, Joe Biden stepped in and immediately fired Robb, replacing him with Acting General Counsel Peter Sung Ohr. In February, Ohr filed a motion to withdraw the earlier complaint.

The move indicated that Scabby’s future was secure – for now. But Erik Loomis, professor of labor history at the University of Rhode Island, says he’s not sure the rat is as relevant to the current worker-led movement as it once was. “It doesn’t reflect what’s happening in Alabama right now,” he says. “It doesn’t represent organizing at Google. It doesn’t represent the handyman economy. It really represents an older version of the American labor movement.”

That’s partly because Scabies is a product of the construction industry, where the rat has long been associated with “scabs,” or people crossing a picket line during a strike to continue working. Newer organizers, especially in the tech field, may not know that history, Loomis says.

Sweeney believes Scabby could still have a place in tech unions, noting that they are all fighting for the same cause. “It doesn’t matter if I am a traditional older union or if I am a new technical union, we do the same,” he says. “We are all trying to increase workers’ wages, we are trying to improve the working conditions and dignity of workers. That’s what we’re going for. ”

The comments come just weeks after a crushing defeat for workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. On April 9 the NLRB announced that workers 1,798 against 738 had voted against the union organization.

Organizers in Bessemer said the union was about more than just wages. “It’s a matter of morality, of who will make money from their work,” Kim Kelly wrote in Vox. “It is a matter of right and wrong, of what is just, just and fair. For these workers and the organizers who have traveled from the south to support their unionization efforts, this is their story of David and Goliath. What they want is dignity. “

(According to the Dead Sea Scrolls, Goliath stood at “four cubits and a span,” about six feet and nine inches, or more than five feet shorter than an average Scabies.)

Whether or not Scabby has a place in Bessemer, Loomis says he doesn’t expect the rat to disappear anytime soon. That’s partly because of how ardently people like Peter Robb hate it. “It just goes to show how much that silly inflatable rat infuriates building owners and contractors,” says Loomis. “If anything, Robb’s attack made people defend it even more.”