Scabby the Rat: Good Times, Bad Times

Several years ago, I wrote about Scabby the Rat, the giant inflatable rat that is regularly used at union rallies and picket lines to draw attention to greedy employer behaviour. Recently, Scabby has popped up (ha-ha) in the news, in a good way and in a bad way.

At the time of my previous post, Scabby had mostly made appearances in the US. But  this past summer Scabby showed up in my own country, rising above the fence at Ontario Place in Toronto during a lockout of stagehands at the Canadian National Exhibition. And now it seems that Scabby has gone international, as he was part of a recent case in New Zealand involving alleged defamation during contract negotiations.

In 2016, members of First Union were negotiating a collective agreement with the owner of a Pak’n Save supermarket. When negotiations stalled, the union members held a protest outside the supermarket, with Scabby and signs reading “Pak’n Slave”. The employer took the union to New Zealand’s employment court (similar to the provincial and federal Labour Relations Boards in Canada), claiming that Scabby and the signs were defamatory and that they breached the legal requirement to bargain in good faith.

In December 2018, an employment court judge ruled that the duty of good faith “does not require bargaining to be undertaken in a courteous way” and dismissed the employer’s complaints. Scabby’s presence at the protest was deemed to be “an exercise of free speech”.

The New Zealand version of Scabby the Rat, at a protest in 2014. (credit: TVNZ)

The news story that alerted me to this case notes that Scabby was actually on loan to First Union from another New Zealand union, but that First Union has its own “big fat inflatable pig” that also appears at its protests. A First Union representative told the newspaper, “Giant blow up representations of these animals outside their stores draws public attention to this bad behaviour and are intended to make employers think twice about their treatment of workers.”

However, things are not so positive for Scabby back in the USA. The Trump administration is decidedly anti-worker and anti-union, and a Trump appointee at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the independent federal agency that administers US labour law, appears to have it in for Scabby. This week, Bloomberg Law reported that Peter Robb, the agency’s general counsel, “hates the rat” and is looking for a chance to use a legal decision to ban the use of Scabby at protests. Legal experts quoted in this story say that since Scabby is used in ways that are “non-coercive” – as in “not inflicting material harm” – it would be difficult for the NLRB to make that change, especially as Scabby’s use has also been determined to be a form of free speech.

Scabby is so popular that Big Sky Balloons, the company which created him, not only has Scabbys ranging in size from six to 25 feet tall, but also now has an entire line of “union characters” – the “Corporate Fat Cat” is available with optional “construction worker and money bag” to clench in its mighty paws. It says something about the bad state of worker-employer relations in the US and elsewhere that Scabby and his friends are so popular.

Scabby wouldn’t be the only form of worker uprising that Republican administrations has tried to squash, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the recent US government shutdown came to an end because of union activism – namely, unionized aviation workers starting to withdraw their (unpaid) labour because of dangerous conditions in the industry they were responsible for operating safely.  Scabby is a visual representation of the strength of that kind of collective power – and I suspect that if the NLRB decides to get into a scrap with Scabby, they may find him to be a very formidable opponent.

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