The Seymour Street project was targeted by the Inflatable rat, or union rat, in late June. The rats protest contractors, drawing attention attention to companies employing nonunion labor. But an opinion by the National Labor Board could make their use illegal.
DEBORAH ANN TRIPOLDI/STAFF

BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Since 1990, Scabby the Rat has stood tall and menacing outside of businesses or construction job sites that don’t use union workers.

The inflatable rat balloon made an appearance recently in Montclair in late June at the site of the Seymour Street redevelopment, protesting the lack of union workers used by developers Pinnacle Cos. and Brookfield Properties.

When Councilwoman Renée Baskerville visited the Lidl supermarket in Union in February, in an attempt to get a feel for the chain that is planned to open in Lackawanna Plaza, she knew immediately that the company didn’t employ union work when she was greeted by the rat parked outside the store in protest of nonunion Lidl employees, she said.

And to the thousands of Montclairites who commute to the city, they are a common sight on their way to work.

The helium-filled rat balloon comes in various sizes from 6 to 25 feet. But all of the rats have bloodshot eyes, grasping splayed claws and bloated bellies with “scabs,’ the nickname for strikebreakers, designed by Illinois-based Big Sky Balloons and Searchlights, who specialized in inflatable balloons.

Prior to the creation of Scabby, union workers would place the stickers on substitute workers cars saying “I am a scab,” said Councilman Bob Russo, vice president for higher education with American Federation of Teachers New Jersey, and a past president of the Montclair State University faculty union. 

“The stickers were placed on substitute workers cars, when they would drive through picket lines and work at sites where permanent workers were on strike,” Russo said. “The rat is First Amendment free speech, and the National Labor Relations Board should respect that right to visibly protest,  but is obviously controlled by anti-labor union members appointed by an anti-union president.”

Not all have nostalgia for Scabby. Over the years, the use of the rats have been challenged by businesses, and even town councils, that contend they constitute unlawful picketing or cause a nuisance. In 2011, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that the inflatable rat did not constitute a picket, but instead, constituted “symbolic” speech or freedom of speech. 

Two new developments, however, could put an end to the rat sightings for good. Late last year, the NLRB issued a memo opining the labor movement’s use of inflatables as illegal. The memo was in response to a Chicago case involving a large, inflatable cat clutching a construction worker — in addition to Scabby, “Fat Cat” and “Greedy Pig” inflatables have also been seen at protest sites. 

The suit contented the use of the cat was “coercive” and “unlawful” at the site. At least two workers turned away from the worksite due to the “symbolic, confrontational barrier” of the cat, according to the memo.

Another recent case involves a Staten Island supermarket whose owner filed a complaint with the NLRB over rats placed outside its business. 

The Chicago case has been settled, but the Staten Island suit, to be decided by the NLRB, could deflate not only Scabby, but Fat Cat and Greedy Pig, for good

Scabby was born in 1990, when the Chicago bricklayers union approached Big Sky Balloons. The bricklayers wanted something “massive and mean” to get their point across and, in fact, turned down the first rendition of Scabby saying it wasn’t mean enough, according to an article in Mental Floss. 

On the second attempt, the Scabby we know today was born, and the company sells about 200 rats per a year, the 12-footer being the most popular.