By Robert Channick
For nearly 30 years, Scabby the Rat, a giant inflatable balloon with sharp claws, a perpetual snarl and a menacing demeanor, has loomed over construction sites across Chicago and beyond to protest the hiring of nonunion labor.
Like deep dish pizza, skyscrapers and the Ferris Wheel, the giant inflatable rat is a Chicago creation that has found its way into the broader culture. Scabby had a memorable star turn on a “Sopranos” TV episode centered around a construction work stoppage.
But soon, Scabby the Rat — who comes in a variety of sizes and designs — may be out of work.
The National Labor Relations Board previously gave the giant rats a wide berth but it’s shifted its stance under the Trump administration. The board is weighing whether to crack down on their use, on the grounds that the rats may be scaring away customers from “neutral” businesses not involved in the labor dispute.
“Their use is unlawful under the (National Labor Relations) Act and not protected under the First Amendment because they are being used specifically to menace, intimidate and coerce in aid of an unlawful purpose,” Peter Robb, the NLRB’s general counsel, said in a brief filed last month in a case in Philadelphia.
Banning the rats not only would eliminate what has become the go-to protest symbol for many local unions, but it would also be a blow to Big Sky Balloons, a southwest suburban Plainfield company that created and manufactures Scabby.
Scabby was commissioned in 1990 by the bricklayers union in Chicago, which was looking for an eye-catching way to make its case against alleged unfair hiring practices. A protest icon was born, and rats as tall as 25 feet have been inflated at construction sites on behalf of a variety of trade unions ever since.
“Everybody in Chicago knows what the rat is and that somebody is on strike,” said James Allen, president of District Council 1 of the International Union of Bricklayers in Elmhurst. “Before, you could drive by and see six guys with picket signs and probably never notice them.”
Use of the rat over three days last summer by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Philadelphia is facing a stiff test before the National Labor Relations Board.
Protesting the hiring of nonunion labor during the renovation of a downtown Fairfield Inn, the local union brought in two 8- to 12-foot rats, positioning them between the entrances to the hotel and restaurant and scaring away customers, according to a complaint filed by the hotel with the NLRB.
The five-member board has yet to rule on the complaint, but the brief filed by Robb, the agency’s general counsel, didn’t mince words.
“A huge, menacing inflatable rat placed near a business entrance thus inherently conveys a threatening and coercive message that will restrain a person,” the brief stated. “For three days, pedestrians, guests, employees and contractors…could not avoid large, intimidating, hostile-looking inflatable rats that were mere feet, and sometimes inches, away from them.”
Also at issue is the notion that the hotel and restaurants were neutral companies, and that the union’s primary beef was with the contractor that hired the nonunion labor to do the renovation.
There is no disputing that the rat balloons were meant to be threatening.
Mike and Peggy O’Connor launched Big Sky Balloons in Plainfield as a hot air balloon ride company in 1980.
The couple moved into advertising a few years later, inflating large tethered balloons above car dealers and store grand openings. The business really took off in 1990, when they created Scabby for the local Bricklayers union.
“They called him with the idea, Mike came up with the design,” Peggy O’Connor said. “The guy said he wanted it meaner looking, with festering nipples and big claws. Mike redesigned it and the guy liked it.”
Rats range in size from 6 feet to 25 feet, and in price from about $2,600 to $9,300 each, she said. Big Sky sells about two to three Scabby the Rat balloons a month.
In addition to Scabby, Big Sky sells an assortment of giant inflatable vermin, including “Cockroach,” “Fat Cat” and “Greedy Pig,” all of which may be endangered by the pending NLRB case. The protest menagerie has nonetheless been out in force this summer across Chicago.
For six weeks, a 15-foot Scabby has been stationed nearly every day on the sidewalk at 15 W. Washington St., in downtown Chicago, part of an ongoing protest against Urbanspace, a New York-based company building a new food hall set to open this fall. Unions have been embroiled in a labor dispute with general contractor Level Construction for allegedly hiring nonunion tradesmen at lower wages to renovate the 12,000 square foot ground floor space.
On July 29, Level Construction filed charges with the Chicago office of the NLRB against the Painters District Council 14 and the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters Local 1 over the protests, claiming in part that the excessive use of the rat balloons interfered with the daily operations of the building, its tenants and people navigating the busy sidewalk.
“One day they put 17 giant balloons outside the building,” said Saim Salahuddin, vice president of development for Harwood Heights-based Level Construction. “It looked like a fortress guarded by rats.”
Urbanspace did not respond to a request for comment.
On Tuesday morning, two members of the electrician’s union, Local 134, stood in front of the building in bright yellow vests under the watchful gaze of the giant rat, its air compressor adding to the street noise of passing cars, bikes and pedestrians.
A bicyclist whizzed by in the adjacent bike lane, raising his fist in solidarity with the union protestors and the giant rat.
By Wednesday morning, the rat pack had grown to four giant rodents.
Louise Mayo, 65, of Chicago, who was taking an early morning coffee break from her nearby office, stopped to ask the union representatives about the protest. Mayo told the Tribune she was supportive of the workers’ plight, and their right to free expression, but questioned the value of the giant rats.
“To be honest, I don’t think it’s very effective,” Mayo said. “I’ve seen these things up and down and up and down, but I think the real negotiation takes place in the office – whether you have these things up or not.”