Is Chicago-born union protest ‘Scabby the Rat’ about to be exterminated?

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CHICAGO — The giant inflatable rat you often see in front of businesses where there are union disputes with owners and management could soon be exterminated.   

The question – in a number of court cases – will determine if the rat known as “Scabby” — is an illegal form of picketing – which can be restricted and regulated by law, or a form of protected free speech – which cannot be restrained.

Peter Robb, of The National Labor Relations Board wrote in a court filing, “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.” 

But Jim Sweeney, of the Local 150 Operating Engineers, the union at the center of one of the key cases, and the inventor of “Scabby,” back in 1988 said it boils down to constitutional protections.

“It’s our free speech – as all Americans we have a right to free speech – and they are actively, as we speak, trying to take scabby as one of our ways to communicate with the public away,” Sweeney said. 

One other local union claims to have a role in inventing “Scabby,” District Council 1 of the International Union of Bricklayers in Elmhurst is said to have commissioned a scabby balloon in 1990.   

Ken Lambert, a former organizer with the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, said he invented Scabby in 1990 when he called Big Sky balloons to craft a tool that would draw attention to labor-management disputes.

Big Sky did not respond to WGN’s questions about which union designed the first Scabby.

Photo: Ken Lambert holds his son Luke in front of an early Scabby balloon.


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