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Leave Scabby the Rat alone

Real rats are nasty. But a giant, inflatable one? That’s free speech.

Scabby the Rat balloons line the 100 block of West Washington as part of a protest last week by Local 134 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Scabby the Rat balloons line the 100 block of West Washington as part of a protest last week by Local 134 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Rats are a menace, no doubt.

The real ones, that is. Those small, furry, nasty creatures, skittering out of garbage cans or scurrying down the subway tracks give us a shiver down the spine, make us recoil in disgust.

But a giant, inflatable rat? Give us a break.

Scabby, the outsized, Chicago-born rat that’s a stock figure in labor disputes involving the hiring of non-union workers, is no menace or threat.

He’s a balloon. Get a grip.

The general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, however, thinks Scabby and other protest balloons are intimidating. In particular, NLRB’s Peter Robb wrote in a memo last year, they don’t belong outside so-called “secondary targets,” neutral businesses that just happen to use a contractor that the union is fighting.

In such disputes, Scabby or other protest balloons are “confrontational, threatening and coercive,” Robb wrote regarding an NLRB case involving Local 134 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

“Confrontational, threatening and coercive.” Remember, we’re talking balloons here.

(Full disclosure: Local 150 of the International Union of Operating Engineers has an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media. Both Local 150 and the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Union lay claim to creating Scabby.)

The use of inflatable balloons by unions has long been considered free speech that is protected under the First Amendment, labor professor Robert Bruno of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, told us.

“Stationary balloons are peaceful examples of expressive activity and not remotely forms of picketing or coercive activity,” Bruno said.

But not so with the current NLRB, dominated by conservative Republicans who tend to be hostile to labor.

Legal precedent is on Scabby’s side, Bruno pointed out. In one recent Philadelphia case, an administrative law judge spurned Robb’s argument about secondary targets: The union had a free-speech right to put inflatable rats outside a hotel to protest a contractor — but the union didn’t have the right to scream into a bullhorn and disturb guests and customers.

We have never once seen Scabby scream at people through a bullhorn.

Leave the rat alone.

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