The recent announcement, already apparently abandoned, that some within organized labor want to abandon “Scabby the Rat” drew immediate protest.
Sean McGarvey, president of the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department, said in a now-deleted tweet, “Meeting with our Presidents and state councils. Issued a call to retire the inflatable rat. It does not reflect our new value proposition.”
As Mike Elk reported at In These Times, the response from union members and lovers of the widely recognized inflatable rat, used to draw attention to workers' actions, was immediate. One of the loudest was Scabby the Rat himself, via a Twitter account used most of the time to disseminate labor news by a self-described independent hacktivist, consultant, and writer based in Chicago. “'Value proposition?' Here's the proposition: treat workers fairly. Here's the value: you get to do business,” he tweeted in response, the start of a stream of tweets quoting famed labor leaders and denouncing “MBA weasel-speak."
Love for the rat seems to have trumped value propositions for the time being—since the story broke that leadership was reconsidering his usefulness, he's popped up in New York, Washington, DC, and even outside the home of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. His end seems to be a long way off, but where did the rat get his start?
Scabby was born in 1990 in Illinois, from the minds of organizers Ken Lambert and Don Newton from District Council 1 of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers. According to council director James Allen, the organizers got together and suggested a “bigger than life” symbol for picket lines that would get people's attention and immediately send a signal to the businesses being picketed.
Peggy O'Connor, co-owner with her husband Mike, of Big Sky Balloons and Searchlights, Inc. in Plainfield, Illinois, remembered when the call came in for the rat. “Mike and the organizers were going back and forth, saying, 'We need it more snarly.' They wanted a mean, ghastly looking kind of rat.” With some claws and the now-famous “scabby” pink belly, the rat was complete, and the basic shape hasn't changed since then.
Scabby struck a chord with workers—Allen noted that the rat was already a symbol for bosses who didn't use union labor or do right by their workers. “I think [Scabby] was, in fact, created through the collective consciousness brought about by decades of struggle,” commented Miles Kampf-Lassin, community editor at In These Times.
From the first appearance, it took less than a year for other locals to want their own Scabbys. “The novelty spread like rats,” O'Connor joked. Big Sky sells about 100 rats a year, ranging from six feet to 30 feet tall, though their best sellers are 10, 12, and 15-footers. “We've sold the most to the East Coast, we've sold them also to California, sold them to New Mexico, sold them to places in Canada,” O'Connor said. “We'll drive around to a snow-removal company and they've got a rat that we sold to somebody in New Jersey, and it's like, 'Wow, the rat came back.' The different unions borrow them from one another, people will call us and say, 'One of your rats is at the snow removal place.' They just pop up.”
They come in multiple colors—a bright yellow Scabby joined Chicago's teachers on their strike this year—and customizations like longer or shorter claws, different facial expressions (some, O'Connor noted, want their Scabby less snarly) are available. Big Sky also sells “fat cats,” complete with diamond pinky ring and a construction worker held by the throat, in six sizes, and “greedy pigs” in four. There's even a “union bug” for the ultimate gross-out factor.
But Scabby remains the most popular, the most recognizable. In an email interview (he—or she--prefers to remain anonymous), the person behind the “Scabby the Rat” Twitter handle commented, “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 National Labor Relations Board has, in recent years, upheld the use of the rat as symbolic speech. (Century Foundation fellow Moshe Marvit tweeted that by his count the rat is discussed in 41 NLRB decisions and 20 federal court decisions.) Essentially, the rat is a statement about a place of business—a clear statement that the union (or workers who may not be part of a union) doesn't like its labor practices. This is protected speech as well as a nod to the fact that the rat, in its twenty-odd years of existence, has become a well-recognized icon.
Republican NLRB member Brian Hayes dissented from that ruling, calling the use of the rat "unmistakably confrontational,” but that's the point. An inflatable rat, even a 30-foot-tall one that has “threatening” or “frightening” features, doesn't hold the power that employers do, so the union has to resort to tactics that attract attention, that inform the public that workers are being treated unfairly and to attempt to win them over.
“Scabby is a symbol of confrontation. The suggestion that capital will treat workers better if unions just become less confrontational couldn't be more wrong,” Scabby the Rat said. “The weekend, the eight-hour day, and worker safety were all won over the kicking and screaming (and bullets and truncheons) of the ownership class, not because labor leaders and capitalists attended the same seminars on management. Union leadership, and confrontation-shy liberals more generally, would do well to take a history lesson here and take a step to the left, because that's the only place worker protection calls home.”
Even the right wing occasionally sees the value of Scabby; as Mike Elk reported, in 2011, the front group Americans for Job Security brought a rat (not the model rat trademarked by Big Sky Balloons, it's worth noting) to the NLRB to protest what they called its “job-killing” agenda. Americans for Job Security is of course interested in anything but Job Security—it was founded by Republican operatives and shares a message and a “media buyer” with American Crossroads, Karl Rove's outfit for electing probusiness Republicans. But the attempt to co-op the rat showed the value of this particular kind of symbolic speech.
Most of the time, of course, business is no fan of the rat. “There's no doubt that they don't like the attention,” Allen said. “On the other hand, the cars, they always honk their horns, the pedestrians, they tend to like the rat. Chicago, like New York, is a union town, most people know what the rat represents.”
Occasionally, the rats even come off the worst in a confrontation. On three different occasions that Allen remembers, the rats have been stabbed by angry representatives of management. “About two years ago, this guy came out with a big butcher knife and slashed the rat. We had him arrested, he actually reimbursed us for about $8,000, which is what the rat cost,” Allen said. John Cronan, a New York-based organizer, related his tale of seeing Scabby stabbed while working with the IWW to organizer workers at Flaum Appetizing. “It deflated, and we had to send it away to get fixed. Was the first time I ever saw something like that,” he said. In New York, organizers from New York Communities for Change also witnessed an irate manager stab the rat outside a car wash where workers were organizing.
The violence Scabby occasionally experiences may seem funny, but it's also representative of the way workers are treated by management all too often. The boss might not come at them with a butcher knife, but workers and their unions are under attack and union density is at its lowest since 1929; even with a recent wave of strikes at Walmart, fast food restaurants, teachers in Chicago, and bus drivers in New York, visible signs of labor's presence are all too few these days.
Labor historian Erik Loomis commented, “In a world where unionized workers are struggling to keep their unions, their contracts, and their jobs, the rat gives them a humorous way to express their frustration with the trajectory of their lives. It has become part of labor's internal culture, a lifestyle under siege. Getting rid of the rat because it doesn't fit union leaders' 'value proposition' and might offend CEOs, shows that too many union bureaucrats don't value the culture of the workers they theoretically represent.”
That culture is appreciated beyond the union hall and shop floor. Molly Crabapple, VICE columnist, artist, and illustrator for this piece, said, “Scabby the Rat is popular art at its best. He's the mean, funny, fiercely alive counterpart to all New York's anodyne corporate sculpture.”
Blogger Stefanbc, writing in defense of the rat, called for workers to get more confrontational, not less. He recommended watching the Oscar-nominated documentary How To Survive a Plague, looking at the way ACT UP shook up the complacent government that was willing to let people with AIDS, mostly gay men, die. “This is not the time for meekly accepting one's fate or deciding to approach those who wish to destroy any semblance of organized political power for the degraded American worker with an undeserved air of civility,” he argued. “Instead,” he wrote, “it's time to give Scabby a promotion.”
For the activist behind “Scabby the Rat” on Twitter, the destruction of the middle class goes hand in hand with the destruction of unions. The neoliberal economic project, he pointed out, is dedicated to erasing the gains that workers made in the 20th century. “Unions are basic economic self-defense for ordinary people, a collective action to form the only counterweight we have against the entrenched interests of an increasingly abusive, overwhelmingly powerful plutocratic minority,” he said.
“I guess what Sean McGarvey's probably trying to do is go about organizing a little differently,” Allen said. “There are times when we go about organizing peacefully and get things resolved that way, but the rat is kind of the last weapon we use.”
In 2011, as Wisconsinites gathered outside the Capitol to fight right-wing governor Scott Walker's bill taking away collective bargaining rights from public workers, Roosevelt Institute fellow Matt Stoller argued, “People might only like unions when they see strikes, otherwise all they hear about is backroom negotiations. Perhaps effectively striking is actually the way to force people to ask questions about what kind of country they want to live in.”
Scabby the Rat doesn't just come out at strike time, but he sends a similar signal that unions are standing up for their rights. He's around for informational pickets and rallies, to send a message to politicians and business leaders that labor is watching. Scott Walker was greeted by three Scabbys of different sizes when he showed up in New York for a fundraiser after his attack on his state's workers, and James Allen recalls a rally in Chicago that featured 27 rats all together. Scabby is a symbol of solidarity, and the most visible symbol of a labor movement that isn't dead yet, that is willing to fight, not just make backroom deals.