The Story Behind the Giant Inflatable Union Rat


© Bob Krist/CORBIS

??If you're from a town with a strong union presence, you know that if new commercial construction happens without union labor, protests often follow. Burly guys in work boots and union shirts will take to the streets to wave signs, pass out flyers, and draw attention to whatever business has offended them. Sometimes they'll bring a special guest—a giant inflatable rat with sharp, menacing buckteeth and claws, beady red eyes and a belly scattered with festering blemishes and swollen nipples.

This year, the rat—which the Labor Heritage Foundation calls an "effective piece of street theater"—is old enough to grab a beer with guys when they've had their fill of picketing. That's right, "Scabby the Rat" (as he was dubbed by his creators) has been uglying up the sidewalks in front of union-unfriendly businesses for 21 years.

The Rat Pack

Scabby was born in 1990, when the Chicago bricklayers union contacted Plainfield, Illinois-based Big Sky Balloons and Searchlights. The bricklayers were looking for something big and nasty to get their point across at a protest. When Big Sky owner Mike O'Connor showed them his sketch, their criticism was succinct: "It's not mean enough."

© Big Sky Balloons

O'Connor added bigger, pointier buckteeth and a pink belly bristling with gross-looking nipples. The bricklayers loved it. (Big Sky also makes Greedy Pig and Fat Cat protest balloons.)

Scabby quickly caught on with other unions. The rat business began booming and Big Sky was taking orders from all over the country. Most of the rats went to the East Coast, and most of those went to New York City, with the local chapter of the masons' union getting their hands on the first one. Soon, there were at least 30 Scabbys in the five boroughs; 13 of them once reunited for a rally in Union Square.

Today, Big Sky continues to sell 100-200 rats a year, from the compact 6-foot model ($2,000) to the enormous 25-footer (about $8,000). The most popular size is the 12-foot model, which conveniently fits standing in the back of a pickup and gets attention without breaking New York and other cities' ordinances dictating the height of inflatable displays.

So far, Scabby has had a heck of a 21st. Federal regulators ruled that union activists have the legal right to display the rats outside companies during labor disputes. And the New Jersey state Supreme Court similarly ruled that the use of the rats in labor protests is protected speech under the First Amendment, overturning a township ordinance that banned any inflatable signs not being used for a store's grand opening.