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

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CHICAGO (WGN) — 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 whether 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” 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.   

Scabby, which stands up to 25 feet tall, with red eyes, prominent front teeth and claws, brings attention to unions airing their grievances.

“Before, you could drive by and see six guys with picket signs and probably never notice them,” James Allen, president of District Council 1 of the International Union of Bricklayers, told the Tribune last year.

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