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Photo illustration by William Joel | Photo by Juana Arias for the Washington Post

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Three cheers for Scabby the Rat

The giant inflatable rodent that became the face of America’s labor movement

The 12-foot rat loomed over the entrance to the RV trade show in Elkhart, Indiana, the “RV capital of the world.” It stood 12 feet high, its beady red eyes and snarling fangs alerting attendees that at least one company wasn’t playing nice with union organizers. Depending on who you asked, the gigantic inflatable rodent was either a menace or a rallying cry. But to its owners — members of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 150 — it was merely Scabby, a beloved symbol of the labor movement.

Since the late ‘80s, unions have been using Scabby to shame business owners who won’t negotiate a fair contract with workers. “From the very beginning, you could be picketing in front of a business, have workers out there 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,” says Jim Sweeney, president of IUOE Local 150. Scabby embarrassed business owners, drawing unwanted attention from passersby. And embarrassment turned out to be a powerful force for union organizers.

Sweeney helped create the character in 1988 as a way to reclaim worker power from the infamously anti-labor Reagan administration. The first version was a furry costume worn by union organizers. “We quickly found out that when it’s 90 degrees out and you put on a heavy, woolen Scabby suit, it could become very rancid inside there,” Sweeney says. Next, the union created a midsize blow-up rat that stood on top of a car (the “rat patrol’’). The car was fun — a statement! — but still, they wanted something bigger. Finally, they commissioned Big Sky Balloons to create a massive inflatable Scabby.

Today, in labor hubs like Chicago and New York City, the rat is a familiar symbol of worker power. Its size ranges from six to 25 feet tall, costing anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000. Yet even the small Scabby is hard to ignore. The rat has red, dark-rimmed eyes, yellowing buck teeth, and sharp fangs, with claws stretched out in front. Big Sky also offers a corporate “fat cat” balloon, as well as a “greedy pig,” although those are less widely seen.

As an emblem of worker power, Scabby has been enormously successful, pissing off business owners and spreading awareness about its cause. Perhaps for that reason, Scabby has come under threat of extermination in recent years, particularly during the Trump administration. Peter Robb, the former general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), tried to ban Scabby’s usage in some situations, citing a lawsuit about the rat’s presence at the RV trade show in 2018.

According to a brief submitted by the NLRB’s general counsel, the IUOE placed Scabby at the entrance to the show, alongside two banners, one of which called out a company named Lippert Components for harboring rat contractors (someone who refuses to work with unionized workers or treats employees poorly). “The inflatable rat was particularly menacing and scary, standing twelve feet tall with red eyes and sharp fangs and claws,” the brief alleges — a description that likely delighted union organizers.

Robb tried to say that Scabby’s presence at the show was “so intimidating” it could “coerce third parties that have nothing to do with the spat, such as the RV company’s contractors,” according to HuffPost. Such coercion would constitute an illegal secondary boycott.

Luckily for Scabby, Joe Biden took office and promptly 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 — for the moment — secure. But Erik Loomis, a labor history professor at the University of Rhode Island, says he’s not sure the rat is as relevant for the current worker-led movement as it once was. “It doesn’t represent what’s going on in Alabama right now,” he says. “It doesn’t represent organizing at Google. It doesn’t represent the gig worker economy. It really represents an older version of the American labor movement.”

That’s partly because Scabby is a product of the building trades, where the rat has long been associated with “scabs,” or people who cross a picket line during a strike to continue working. Newer organizers, particularly in tech, might not know that history, Loomis says.

Sweeney believes Scabby could still have a place in tech unions, noting they are all fighting for the same cause. “It doesn’t matter if I’m a traditional older union, or if I’m a new tech union, we’re doing the same thing,” he says. “We’re all trying to lift workers’ wages, we’re trying to lift workers’ conditions and dignity up. That’s what we’re about.”

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

Organizers in Bessemer said the union was about more than just wages. “It is a matter of morality, of just who will make money off their labors,” wrote Kim Kelly in Vox. “It’s a question of good and evil, about what is righteous, and just, and fair. For these workers and the organizers who have traveled from across the South to support their unionization effort, this is their David and Goliath story. 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 Scabby.)

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

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