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The History Of Scabby The Rat

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Maybe you've crossed paths with Scabby the Rat in the past. It's a giant, inflatable rodent that unions around the country sometimes install in front of a business during demonstrations. This month, the National Labor Relations Board, which is the federal agency that enforces labor law, is debating the rat's future. Amanda Aronczyk with our Planet Money podcast has the story.

AMANDA ARONCZYK, BYLINE: Tamir Rosenblum is a lawyer who represents a union of construction laborers in New York. And his union owns one of these giant rats.

TAMIR ROSENBLUM: I have done tons of work for the rat. We've had times when the police confiscated the rat. We've had times when the rat was stabbed.

ARONCZYK: Most often, the rat gets attacked in court by the businesses the unions are protesting. Rosenblum figures he's represented Scabby at least 50 times. The latest troubles started last year outside a ShopRite supermarket on Staten Island.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: New York City's a union town.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: New York City's a union town.

ARONCZYK: About 15 people from Rosenblum's union were protesting the ShopRite for using non-union labor to build another ShopRite a couple miles away. To publicize the dispute, the union set up their rat.

ROSENBLUM: I think we had a medium-sized one out there. It didn't look too enormous, but, you know, definitely taller than me.

ARONCZYK: They range from six feet up to 25 feet. The union rat is up on its hind legs. It has red eyes and sharp claws. The story of the rat dates back to the late 1980s with a guy named Jim Sweeney. He's a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers, the local just outside Chicago.

JIM SWEENEY: We're a union of around 9,000 members. And we were on the decline. Remember, this is a Reagan era. And a lot of the labor movement was going into an entrenching mode.

ARONCZYK: It was a moment when public opinion turned against unions. Around then, Sweeney was hired by his union to be an organizer to come up with new tactics for disputes with businesses that hire non-union workers.

SWEENEY: They are very sensitive to being publicly shamed.

ARONCZYK: That made him think of an old union insult, the rat contractor who abuses the workers. This inspired Sweeney to get some rat suits made.

SWEENEY: We would use that on the picket line. Well, that really drew attention to our cause.

ARONCZYK: And is it comfortable to wear the costume?

SWEENEY: No, no. And in the summer, it would kill you, it was a very gamey smell. Oh, it was horrible.

ARONCZYK: The rat suits smelled so bad, Sweeney was compelled to come up with a rat that had no one inside of it. And hence, Scabby the inflatable rat was born. Flash-forward 30 years...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: If they don't union...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: Shut it down.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: If they don't union...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Shut it down.

ARONCZYK: The descendant of that rat was in front of the ShopRite supermarket. And the reason this protest wound up in court is not the rat itself but where the rat was standing, because the union wasn't angry about what was happening at this ShopRite. They were mad about the ShopRite construction site a couple of miles away. So why didn't they put the rat up there?

ROSENBLUM: You know, how many people are shopping at a half-built ShopRite? Like, nobody, right? The people are at the open one.

ARONCZYK: Now the Trump administration's labor board is using cases like this one to argue that an inflatable rat outside a business that is not at the center of the dispute is intimidating and coercive. It's like they're picketing the ShopRite, something a union can only do at the actual site of the dispute. If Scabby gets deflated, it'll likely happen in the new year.

Amanda Aronczyk, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIIV SONG, "BENT (ROI'S SONG)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.