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.
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.
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.
Urbanspace did not respond to a request for comment.
“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.”