NEW YORK (AP) – For decades, a giant, inflatable rat with beady eyes, sharp teeth and a pustule-covered belly has loomed over union protests, drawing attention to various labour disputes.
As New York City in the United States (US) deals with an influx of actual rats, Scabby the Rat has become that rare thing, like Pizza Rat or Buddy the Rat – a rodent New Yorkers can rally behind.
But in the era of TikTok and influencer culture, middle-aged Scabby faces a new challenge: staying relevant.
“It’s kind of unfortunate, changing times, older members of the public know exactly what the rat is for,” said union activity administrator for the NYC District Council of Carpenters James Smith. “The newer generation sometimes doesn’t – one person thought that we were protesting a building that needed an exterminator.”
Nevertheless, Scabby’s not collecting hard-won retirement benefits just yet. Most recently, Scabby has been making the rounds at various picket lines in New York for the Hollywood writers strike organised by the Writers Guild of America East and other unions. Scabby is the “true rat czar of New York City”, said WGA East communications director Jason Gordon, referencing the more fun title for the city’s new director of rodent mitigation.
At the picket line near HBO and Amazon’s New York offices on Wednesday, screenwriter Lisa Kron, 61, said she was “thrilled to see that we were being chaperoned by Scabby the Rat”.
She’s seen Scabby out and about during her four decades living in New York, but this was her first time picketing with the rat.
“It’s one of those great enduring symbols, it’s a great piece of visual protest,” she said. “It’s got humour and it’s got a shaming kind of message. And it’s very New York.”
“It’s an attention grabber,” said a professor at Adelphi University who has written about the history of Scabby, Benjamin Serby. “It’s something that just is very effective, for whatever reason, at making people walking by or driving by, stop and ask: ‘What’s going on here?’”
Although having a rat as a mascot seems quintessentially New York, Scabby the Rat was actually invented by a union in Chicago around the late 1980s (several claim credit), and other unions around the country quickly adopted the practice of using inflatables to draw attention to actions (roaches and cats are other popular inflatables to use as well, although they lack a catchy nickname).
There are many Scabbys. At another union action in March at a Petco, Marty Flash sat in the cab of his truck used to ferry one of the NYC District Council of Carpenters’ eight rats around (most unions have several, or borrow from unions that do). Most of the district council’s rats, along with a generator and gas can, stay in a locker at union headquarters or in organisers’ trucks so they can be quickly deployed.
Flash, a carpenter for 35 years, has seen many reactions to the three-metre-tall rat, which, at the moment, was towering over Union Square in the truck’s bed.
“In midtown Manhattan, it’s a tourist attraction. Little children get a real kick out of it. They come over, they want to touch it. Dogs are petrified of it,” he said.
Flash said Scabby can inflate in about a minute and a half with a generator and deflate in about 30 seconds. Bigger rats – the rats sized more than six metres – can take 15 minutes to fill up.
Scabby’s name is a play on “scabs”, the derogatory term dating back to the 1800s for strikebreakers who cross picket lines to work. The oozing sores on his belly are a visual reference to the term. But Flash said workers at the sites visited by Scabby shouldn’t take offence, since the rat is protesting against contractors and companies, not the workers themselves.
“Some workers think that we are against them. We’re actually fighting to get them more money, better pay and better benefits,” he said. “But it’s perceived as the rat is calling them a rat or implying that they’re ‘less than’. Which is not our intention… It’s to imply that a rat contractor is not paying their workers the fair pay.”
Rats are made of PVC vinyl and cost between USD8,000 to USD20,000, according to Flash. One company, Blue Sky Balloons outside of Chicago, is responsible for most of the rats found in NYC. But they seem to be distancing themselves from the inflatables, The Guardian reported earlier this year. Blue Sky Balloons responded to an Associated Press query by saying they were new owners who weren’t associated with the rat, and didn’t respond to follow-up queries.
But Flash said his union still sends their rats to Big Sky for repairs, which can cost up to USD2,000. Repairs are needed often since most are years or decades old – so the unions try to take good care of their rats.
“I baby this one with my life,” Flash said. “We have a pool of rats and generators that you take when you need. I just always keep mine with me because I’m familiar with this operation.”
Not everyone likes Scabby. Sometimes the inflatable rat gets slashed or attacked by anyone from random passersby to disgruntled workers at sites. The rat has often been the subject of legal challenges by the companies Scabby targets. If he blocks the sidewalk or street, police can boot him.
But Scabby is a survivor, winning its most recent legal challenge in 2021, when the National Labour Relations Board ruled that it was a protected form of expression.
These days, Scabby also has to contend with new technology and social media. Its Facebook page, run by a retired union organiser, lets various unions post photos of Scabby at protests around the country, and some rats feature QR codes that give people information about campaigns. But president of Local 20 Carpenters Union Mike Piccirillo said a more recent addition to the union’s arsenal might overshadow Scabby.
“Our LED sign truck is a lot more effective than the rat,” he said. “I’ve been in construction for 25 years, and most New Yorkers are numb to the rat. They just walk by it. Now the LED sign with its flashing lights actually gets their attention.”
Yet – much like the currently surging rat population in New York – Scabby is unlikely to completely disappear anytime soon, as long as the rat keeps conveying his message of fair pay for workers.
“People are drawn to it in part because it’s like an ironic symbol of defiance,” Serby said.
“Something about this giant, ugly, toothy kind of scary-looking rat makes people feel permitted to express anger and defiance and outrage at employers.”