Pedestrians walk by a "Scabby" set up in midtown Manhattan.
Pedestrians walk by a "Scabby" set up in midtown Manhattan. - 
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It's a chilly day in midtown Manhattan, but union organizer Julian Tysh is undeterred. He's here representing Teamsters Local 814 to protest businesses that hire non-union movers. And he's not alone. 

Union organizer Julian Tysh (L) 
Union organizer Julian Tysh (L)  - 

After unfurling what looks like an inflatable mattress, he pulls the cord on a small engine, and a balloon begins to take shape: first the belly, then the claws, then the buck teeth, and finally the yellow eyes.

A member of 814 props up the balloon as it inflates.
A member of 814 props up the balloon as it inflates. - 

Finally, at its full 12 feet in height, a giant rat stands on the sidewalk.

Meet Scabby, an icon of labor protests in union towns like New York and Chicago. As union president Jason Ide puts it, "The rat is like the bat signal for the labor movement in New York. When you put the rat up, everybody walking by knows that workers right here aren't being treated fairly." 

Both ugly and effective, Scabby makes regular appearances during labor disputes. He's even been taken to court, when an asbestos contractor argued that the rat qualified as "disruptive activity." (A New York district judge ruled that Scabby is protected under the First Amendment.)

But as much as he is an integral part of the metropolitan skyline, Scabby isn't so much a city slicker as a country mouse.

Just ask Peggy O'Connor. She and her husband Mike have owned and operated Big Sky Balloons and Searchlights in Plainfield, Illinois, for 33 years. Back in 1990, they got a call from a union steward in Chicago who wanted to make a statement at his next rally. So Mike, who designs the balloons for the company, made him a rat. Peggy says that in the original design, Scabby looked kind of friendly. The union steward wanted him uglier. 

Says Peggy, "Mike redesigned it with mean buck teeth, yellowish squinty eyes, big claws, festering nipples, belly art. And he sent that design back to the union steward, and the guy said 'Perfect!'"

After his big debut, orders started coming in from other unions in Chicago. New York, also a big union town, followed suit.

These days, Scabby is the O'Connors' trademarked best-seller. He comes in sizes ranging from 6 to 25 feet tall and costs between $2,000 and $8,000. You can even customize him with extras, like a union worker getting squeezed in his hand, or a money bag to represent corporate greed. 

Teamsters 814 in New York opted for a basic Scabby, though president Jason Ide says they also own others from Big Sky Balloons that they use at protests. 

"We also have an inflatable pig. Occasionally we’ve used an inflatable cat," says Ide. 

Scabby (L) and the Corporate Pig (R) are pictured in midtown Manhattan.

But Scabby remains the star, even if he's not everyone's favorite. Ide tells a cautionary tale about a Scabby that was not so lucky: "A good friend of ours, a Chicago’s teamsters union, had a non-union contractor slash the rat with a knife and drive over it five or six times with his car." (The contractor was convicted of a felony and will serve jail time.)

As of yet, Ide says they haven't experienced any major run-ins. Mostly just tourists stopping to take pictures and say "cheese."

 

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Follow Tobin Low at @tobinlow