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How a 20-foot inflatable rodent became a union label

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A giant rat looms over Flatbush Avenue, in downtown Brooklyn. The 20-footer was inflated by organizers from Local 79, a laborers' union in New York City, to protest a non-union contractor. (Photo by Amy Crawford)

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Members of Local 79, a New York City Union, picket a non-union employer, supported by their 20-foot inflatable rat. (Photo by Amy Crawford)

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Members of Local 79, a New York City Union, chant slogans next to their inflatable rat, part of a protest against a non-union employer. (Photo by Amy Crawford)

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The Center for Union Facts deployed its anti-union dinosaur in 2007 when the U.S. Senate was considering a bill to eliminate secret balloting in union elections and to make it easier for employees to join unions. The bill was defeated by Republicans who threatened to filibuster. (Courtesy of the Center for Union Facts)

At 20 feet tall, the rat was hard to miss. Looming over Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y., the inflatable rodent’s red eyes and toothy grimace were directed at the construction site where a 37-story condominium building was quickly rising. Beneath the rat’s claws stood Anthony Williams, an organizer with Local 79 of the Construction and General Building Laborers Union.

“The rat is a symbol,” explained Williams. “What we’re saying is the contractor is being unfair. The boss is being a rat. You don’t provide benefits and fair wages, that implies a rat.”

Williams said the union had learned the contractor was hiring nonunion workers and paying them below the market rate, with no benefits. Attempts to negotiate fell through, he said, so the union brought out the rat to support a handful of picketers.

“We’re trying to bring them back to the table using any means necessary,” said Williams, as a passing truck driver honked in support.

The “union rat” has become a popular labor tactic in recent years, appearing everywhere from Brooklyn construction sites to a California auto dealership. Recently, it showed up among the celebrities who turned out to support the striking television and movie writers, a message from the Writers Guild of America that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers was a bunch of rats.

Union organizers swear by the rat. “It’s our strongest tool,” said Local 79 member Stanley Brunson. Employers, on the other hand, dread the rat’s presence, and they have developed tactics of their own to combat it.

“Unions have been using street theater for centuries,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University. She cited the 1912 “Bread and Roses Strike” at a textile mill in Massachusetts, when female workers wrapped themselves in the American flag to show that they were not un-American. The workers won the public relations battle, along with higher wages.

“It’s a way to get people’s attention,” Bronfenbrenner said. “Then they’ll come and read your leaflets.”

The union rat is the creation of Mike O’Connor, co-owner, with his wife Peggy, of Big Sky Balloons, an outdoor advertising company in Plainfield, Ill. Around 1990, Don Newton, an organizer for a Chicago bricklayers union, said he went to O’Connor because he needed something big to get the attention of nonunion employers.

“We wanted a higher profile,” explained Newton, who now works for the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craft Workers in Washington, D.C. “You’d be standing on a sidewalk with a picket sign and everybody would be walking around you.”

O’Connor showed Newton a sketch of a rat.

“But he said, ‘Can you make it meaner?’’’ O'Connor said.

So O'Connor added festering nipples, bloodshot eyes, fangs and claws.

"We called it Scabby the Rat," O'Connor said. "He loved it. So we built that one, and then it multiplied, like rats do.”

“It was just marvelous,” said Newton. “Here’s a nice big rat with a 10-foot tail!”

Within a few years, Big Sky Balloons began getting requests for rats from unions in New York City, New Jersey, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. O’Connor estimates that the company has made about 400 rats since the original Scabby. The rats, which are usually between 6 and 30 feet tall, cost between $3,900 and $8,000 and come with motorized blowers so they can inflate in minutes.

Big Sky Balloons has added an entire cast of characters, including a skunk, a cockroach, a “greedy pig,” and even a “corporate fat cat” with a diamond ring on its pinky finger. Inflatable cockroaches have already been spotted in New York City. Local 79, which prefers to stick with the classic gray rat, has six to eight set up around the city at any given time, according to organizer Chaz Rynkiewicz.

With its ubiquity the rat has lost some its power, said Bronfenbrenner, the Cornell professor. “People get numb to it,” she said. “It becomes the scenery of New York.” Still, when a rat appears in front of a construction site or an office, “everybody knows that’s an employer to watch out for. Other unions won’t cross the picket line.”

Employers and anti-union lobbyists insist that the rat is ineffective, but sometimes they join in with their own inflatable animals. In 2005, New York’s Radio City Music Hall inflated a large cat above its marquee, overlooking the rat set up by its musicians union. When it first opened in 2006, the anti-union Center for Union Facts inflated a 12-foot-tall triceratops in front of the AFL-CIO’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“We think a dinosaur is pretty fair,” said J. Justin Wilson, a senior analyst at the Center for Union Facts. “Unions are outdated and outmoded. They’re going to be extinct in 10 years.” The dinosaur, which prominently displayed the organization’s Web address, had its desired effect, Wilson said. “As we were inflating it, everyone was looking out their windows. After we got back to the office, we could see all these hits on our Web site from the AFL-CIO’s servers.”

Stewart Acuff, the AFL-CIO’s National Organizing Director, called the center’s attacks “a feeble attempt to undermine the country's most powerful counterweight to runaway corporate greed and power.” As for the dinosaur, Acuff said, “I don’t remember any creature in front of our building.”

In Brooklyn, the rat stayed up for two days before the contractor’s parent-company, BFC Partners, launched a counteroffensive. A few days after the Chinese New Year, a big blue banner appeared on a light post next to the construction site. It read “BFC Partners Celebrates the Chinese Lunar New Year: 2008–The Year of the Rat.”

It was not enough to deter Local 79, however. Anthony Williams kept the rat up for more than a week until a deal was negotiated with the contractor. Officials at BFC Partners did not want to comment, but Williams sees the outcome as a triumph.

“We were able to put union laborers to work,” Williams said.

That’s why the rat was named “Victoria,” explained Local 79 organizer Stanley Kosiec. “Because if it stays here, we win!”

E-mail: amc2235@columbia.edu