Thu. Feb 22nd, 2024

From today’s Chicago Reader:

hat does a 20-foot-tall inflatable rat have to do with the long history of public expression in the labor rights movement? The answer: a lot more than you’d expect.

Picture a terrifying sight: a hulking rat balloon, as tall as a yellow school bus is long, whose aesthetic is similar to Venom from Spider-Man. The large, oval eyes on each side of its face are completely red, its mouth turned upward in a snarl above a row of jagged, yellow canines that protrude from either side of the critter’s infamous front two buckteeth. Not only is the abomination probably blown up in the middle of a public sidewalk teeming with passersby, but it’s likely placed right in front of a business local union workers are publicly protesting. 

“It’s definitely a sight,” says Don Villar, secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL). “One thing that Scabby the Rat does is draw attention to a problem. If there’s a big Scabby the Rat there, there must be a labor issue there. Naturally, passersby will stop and ask, ‘What’s going on? Why do you have a big inflatable rat in front of the building?’ And our organizers and labor activists will explain that, well, we got a contract fight near, [or] they’re paying substandard wages, or they’re using nonunion labor, they’re violating law—they’re just not treating workers right.”

The CFL acquired their Scabby two years ago. Since then, organizing director Marcus Shepherd—who joined the federation from the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades—has been Scabby’s “shepherd.” CFL lends the inflatable to smaller union affiliates, like the Chicago News Guild, for demonstrations. 

Villar recalls a 2022 incident in Springfield where members of the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers, and Allied Workers Local 112 protested outside a funeral home for using nonunion labor. During the action, one of the facility’s employees walked out and stabbed the inflatable. Villar guffaws over the phone as he recounts the incident to the Reader. “Scabby has been attacked, maligned, but he’s a resilient symbol of the fight for workers’ rights.”

Read the complete story here.

By Editor