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Trumpistas Seek to Deflate Labor’s Friend

The NLRB persists in its fight to outlaw Scabby the Rat, the balloon rodent who helps out workers when they picket their bosses.

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Scabby the Rat in Long Island City, New York, Ray Smith/Creative Commons

In 1913, author Jack London wrote this ode to the those who crossed the picket line:

After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, the vampire, he had some awful substance left with which he made a scab. A scab is a two-legged animal with a cork-screw soul, a water-logged brain, a combination backbone of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumor of rotten principles. When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and angels weep in heaven, and the Devil shuts the gates of Hell to keep him out.

It was from descriptions like these that Scabby the rat took its name and form. In the early 1990s,  Ken Lambert and Don Newton from District Council 1 of Illinois’s bricklayers union decided it was time to escalate one of their campaigns. They contracted with Bigsky Balloons to design and provide a pro-labor inflatable, which inspired unions across the country to inflate and deploy their own 25-foot-high rodents at pickets and boycotts. (Bigsky has since expanded to offer both “fat cat” and “greedy pig” inflatable options.)

Now, the Trump appointees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) are trying yet again to exterminate Scabby once and for all. A 41-page motion filed last week on behalf of NLRB general counsel Peter B. Robb argues that the use of Scabby the Rat “is confrontational conduct that is tantamount to secondary picketing.” This means the board is trying to frame the use of Scabby as disruptive to neutral parties, or workers and businesses who contract with the same employer as those picketing. It goes on to make the peculiar claim that “Scabby crossed the line from legitimate communication to unlawful coercion”—as if the balloon could somehow attack employers, scabs and passersby.  

The case which the general counsel is contesting concerns a Fairfield Inn in Pennsylvania which hired non-union electricians to complete renovations in the hotel. The general counsel is moving for an expedited hearing on the case, describing the dispute as “a matter of national interest as to which both unions and employers need guidance from the Board.” Robb is asking the NLRB to compel members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 to sign an agreement pledging the early retirement of Scabby from future hotel protests.

The most recent bid to stop Scabby isn’t the first nor the most violent attempt to end his alleged reign of terror (Scabby was stabbed in 2013 in Chicago by a disgruntled driver). As Shaun Richman wrote in the Prospect earlier this year, beyond energizing picket lines, Scabby represents a unique solution to the  prohibition on secondary picketing, and is ultimately a form of protected free speech. This has made him a repeated target of the pro-business NLRB looking to upend pro-union tactics at every chance they get.

Robb’s memo to the Board, which asks it to appeal a ruling from Judge Robert Giannasi in the Fairfield Inn case, is not the only recent legal threat to Scabby. Earlier this month, the NLRB requested an injunction against Scabby based on a separate protest in Staten Island by a local construction union. The Staten Island case also relied on framing the rodent’s presence at the picket as a secondary boycott with the intent of attempting to set yet another legal precedent discrediting the First Amendment right to float Scabby at the worksite. The Trump appointees’ anti-Scabby campaign appears undaunted by the fact that courts have affirmed the right to bear rats time and again stretching back to the Bush years. Unsurprisingly, a federal judge overturned the Staten Island ban in short order.

Stefan Stackhouse, a member of the Burgerville Workers Union and former Scabby handler, says that beyond its visual appeal, Scabby provides a boost for union members out on the line. “From days out picketing with Scabby I saw a lot of old and new faces come together,” he told me. “Lifelong union members and kids on the street bonded over that rat. Even Uber drivers who are now organizing would stop to take pictures with him. It would be a real injury to all if Scabby got deflated.”

Banning Scabby would doubtless be the subject of a federal lawsuit from those who believe in the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and assembly. So while the NLRB continues to wage war on Scabby and his ilk, Peter Robb’s endgame is far from won and Scabby lives to fight another day.  

Daniel Boguslaw is an editorial intern at The American Prospect. 

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