Scabby the Rat: A New York City Hero

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As non-union construction work proliferates in New York City, the giant inflatable rat shines a light on related labor disputes.

For New Yorkers, it’s not unusual to pass by a 12-foot-tall rat on the sidewalk. It’s usually an inflated one. Over recent years, sightings of the blow-up rodents have seemingly become more common. As it turns out, the rats—dubbed “Scabby”—have been used by unions throughout the country for decades as a symbol of labor dispute.

 

“When people walk by Scabby, they know there’s some kind of labor dispute in progress,” said a former union carpenter who chose to remain anonymous for this article. “It’s something that’s a universal symbol. Someone could be riding a bus and spot Scabby and know that there’s some dispute there.”

Scabby is there to let New Yorkers know, something smells bad on that job site.

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Wherever New Yorkers see the inflatable Scabby the rat, they know that inside that work zone a contractor has riled the anger of a local construction union over some labor practice or abuse.

A New York City Rat Infestation

As non-union construction has proliferated in New York City so have labor disputes, making Scabby especially relevant today. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that 87.3 percent of the country’s construction industry is non-union, thus facing mistreatment like low wages and unfair working conditions. Plus, non-union workers face danger on the job; nationally, construction workers suffer the third-highest fatality rate of any industry. In 2019, “construction worker” was the deadliest job in New York City. And most of the construction worker deaths in New York City since 2015 have happened on non-union job sites—job sites Scabby wants you to know about.

 

The fight for safe working conditions is only one of the factors Scabby represents. Staging inflatable rats outside of businesses or along picket lines is a way to protest disparities in the industry as well as spread awareness. “If you want to quickly visually communicate ‘labor dispute in progress,’ you can’t do better than Scabby,” said the anonymous source. “People know what it means—you don’t have to explain it. When you’re picketing, you want your communications to be very simple so people know from a distance what’s going on, because not everyone is going to stop and look and read your sign. But if the rat is there, it’s clear.”

Scabby shines a light on unfair work conditions, pay fraud, and other forms of contractor mistreatment of workers.

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Scabby has taken many forms in recent years, but his basic message remains the same as it always has: greedy management is mistreating workers and unions.

Scabby’s origins

Scabby the rat was created by union members in the late 1980s, though his exact beginnings are sometimes debated. The International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 150 (IUOE Local 150)—a labor union representing more than 20 thousand workers in Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa—states on their website that leaders Jim Sweeney and Bob Paddock drew images of a cartoon rat for signs held up at a protest. The signs proved popular, so the union made rat costumes for rallies and on picket lines, but they were uncomfortable. Sweeney had the idea of putting up inflatable rats instead; the first one was small and sat atop cars. But, as Sweeney told The Verge, it was decided something much larger was needed to make an impact and “reclaim worker power” from the Reagan administration, so Big Sky Balloons was brought on to create a huge blow-up Scabby.

 

Scabby—whose name comes from “scab,” a term used by unions to refer to strikebreakers—had exactly the presence the unions wanted, drawing perplexed looks from pedestrians and embarrassing business owners. Eventually, Scabby gained mass recognition, with Big Sky (and knock-off companies) selling inflatable rats across the country and, eventually, internationally.

 

A Very Popular Rat

Today, Scabby has more than ten thousand followers on Twitter, where his bio states his purpose as “to protest anti-union activities.” Big Sky offers multiple inflatable rat options, ranging from eight- to- 25-feet tall. Unions nationwide, especially in hubs like New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia, continue to place the balloons outside of businesses, at rallies, and on picket lines (usually, Scabby is present at area-standards pickets, according to the former carpenter). But as recently as last year, Scabby’s role in the labor movement came under scrutiny and fueled a debate over what constitutes free speech; eventually, in July, the National Labor Relations Board held that barring use of the inflatable balloons violated the First Amendment. In other words, Scabby the rat has free speech rights.

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In addition to the inflatable rats that sit on street sidewalks, Scabby also goes mobile, appearing in Baltimore in a vehicular form.

Scabby and the Big Apple

While Scabby is a symbol of union protest nationwide, he has a special presence in New York City. As the Gotham Center for New York City History put it in a 2021 deep-dive on Scabby: “For years, Scabby has served as the unofficial mascot for organized labor in New York, becoming a familiar, if not always welcome, sight to millions of residents. From his oversized buckteeth to his dark red eyes to his pustular gut, Scabby is completely repulsive, by design.” The inflatable rat first hit the Big Apple’s streets in the mid-1990s. The New York Times reported on Scabby’s presence in 1999, calling the rat “something of a fixture on city streets, often put to use to symbolize the presence of non-union contractors at work sites.”

 

 

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One Scabby in New York was recently adorned in a soiled suit and tie and given a bag of gold to depict wealthy developer managers.

By the early aughts, Scabby’s presence in New York grew; rat balloons were put up by most unions, not just those of the building trades, and were often spotted at demonstrations. According to the Gotham Center, the “number of Scabbies in New York” has increased over the years to keep up with demand; by 2010 there were an estimated 30 inflatable Scabbies across the city. It is difficult to determine exactly how many inflatable rats are in use here today, but it’s safe to say that each trade union probably has a few on hand. “We always had a bunch of them,” said the former union carpenter. “In the course of a week at our organizing department, we would have three or four picket lines, so typically there were multiple Scabbies in circulation.” Indeed, the Times reported that many unions do own numerous balloons.

 

“Scabby is one of the most brilliant visual communication things anybody in labor has done since Chávez in the 1960s with the black eagle, it’s that level of iconic,” said the anonymous former carpenter, comparing the rat symbol to César Chávez’s Aztec eagle symbol created for the United Farm Workers in the 1960s. “All the workers were different nationalities and not everyone spoke English,” he added, “but everyone knew what the eagle flag meant. It was simple. And Scabby likewise has that level of simplicity.”

 
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Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at jessica.beebe.ny@gmail.com.

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