President's Corner


November 2019 Happy Birthday, Scabby

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President’s Corner

This month marks a milestone both in the history of Local 150 and in the global labor movement. It was 30 years ago this month that we held the naming contest for our Organizing Department’s inflatable rat, who has since ascended to worldwide fame as Scabby the Rat.

Local 150 had 10,000 members when Bill Dugan hired me as Local 150’s first full-time organizer in 1987. Our market share in construction was far lower than it is today, and many of the industries that are part of our jurisdiction today were almost completely unorganized. As a new President-Business Manager, Dugan had a vision for Local 150 that centered around large-scale organizing and getting the results we needed required some creative thinking, to say the least.

During the campaign to organize equipment rental and repair shops that would later evolve into Operation Wrench, we decided to make the concept of a “rat” contractor a little bit easier for the public to understand. Business Representative Jim Sullivan had a friend who worked as a stagehand and specialized in costumes for theater productions who designed a rat suit for our organizers to wear on the picket line. This new method of attracting attention was particularly useful, and almost as much fun as drawing straws to see who had to put on the suit every day.

Now, I don’t know how much you know about professional costumes, but they are pretty elaborate and can’t just be tossed in the laundry. As you are certainly aware, we organize around the clock in the summer months when the weather gets hot. I’m sure you can use your imagination to figure out why sweaty organizers and a nearly-unwashable rat suit did not make for a great long-term solution.

The District 1 headquarters is located near a stretch of LaGrange Road that has about every kind of car dealer you can imagine, and one day, an inflatable gorilla on one car lot inspired the next chapter in Scabby history. The stagehand we worked with for the rat suit set us up with our very first inflatable rat, which sat on a roof rack atop Monte Horne’s Oldsmobile, which we painted yellow and christened the “Rat Patrol.”

It is here that the story hits a critical point. Up until this point, we called the rat, “Mr. Rat,” but everyone enjoyed him so much that we decided that he needed a name. The November 1989 edition of the Local 150 Engineer announced the naming contest. After reviewing all the submissions, Local 150’s Executive Board awarded member Lou Mahieu a leather jacket for his winning submission, “Scabby.” The announcement was made in the January 1990 edition of the Engineer, along with the decision to change the Oldsmobile’s official name to “Scab Tracker.”

Scabby was a hit from the start. We quickly deployed a fleet of Scab Trackers, and other unions started to as well. We even bundled Scabby and a Scab Tracker with a generator and a suit and sold it as a “Rat Pack” to other unions in our International. Local building trades started to purchase their own Scabbys, and he quickly became a fixture of Chicago’s labor movement, inspiring the creation of inflatable cats, pigs, and other symbols of greed and injustice.

Forgive the interruption in the story, but I have a bone to pick. In recent years, another union in Chicago – which I will not name – has claimed itself the creator of Scabby, crediting an organizer with dreaming up the idea in the summer of 1990. As you can clearly see from the images that accompany this column, Scabby was on the prowl well before that. Scabby is a part of Local 150’s heritage, an example of the creative thinking that has endured throughout our history to make this union what it is, and I’ll be damned if someone else is going to run around town taking credit for him. Back to the story.

For the next decade, Scabby was with us as we racked up organizing victories and grew our membership. There is no blueprint for organizing. No two campaigns are alike, and adapting tactics is the only way to remain successful, but Scabby has always been a major piece of the puzzle.

When we are out picketing or demonstrating, gaining public support is critically important, and it is in this role that Scabby more than earns his keep. Contractors who have had Scabby outside of their shops and jobsites use a variety of negative terms to describe him, but let me tell you one thing I know for sure: everyone else loves that rat.

People on the street stop and look at Scabby and take an interest in what we are protesting against, and kids delight at the sight of him. All the rat contractor sees when he looks out his window is a crowd surrounding Scabby, and we’ve been told that is truly upsetting.

Like anything else, when something becomes too successful, the other side attacks. Scabby was targeted for the first time in Orland Park, where he was confiscated outside the village hall for allegedly violating a signage ordinance. The police who arrested Scabby had no idea what they had gotten into until hundreds of Local 150 members were quickly called to rally that Saturday morning in the department’s parking lot, with cries of “Free Scabby!” ringing out. As you might expect, Scabby was sprung and sent on his way home.

Orland Park was the first to take on Scabby in court, which led to the landmark decision from Judge Ruben Castillo of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Judge Castillo determined that Scabby was a tool of free speech and enjoyed the full protection of the First Amendment. This has been tested in other courts across the country ever since, and Scabby’s free speech protection has always been upheld.

Scabby has been used by unions across Europe and even popped up for the first time in Australia at a brewery workers’ strike in 2016. Scabby has also enjoyed fame off the picket line. He has appeared on HBO’s The Sopranos and Showtime’s Billions. And the rat that appears in several of the Harry Potter novels is even named “Scabbers.”

Over the past few years, Scabby has played an important role in our bannering campaigns, in which we inform the public of the presence of non-union contractors in a non-picketing setting. Scabby’s new role was apparently so successful that it was noticed by the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), who is himself no stranger to Scabby.

Peter Robb, appointed by President Trump as NLRB General Counsel, worked as an employer-side attorney who represented clients targeted by Scabby. A source within the NLRB recently told Bloomberg News that Robb “hates the rat.” Apparently so, because he has launched nationwide attacks upon unions’ use of Scabby, including multiple cases against Local 150.

Robb’s claim is that the mere presence of Scabby is coercive and that he is a signal picket, which among other things might entitle employers to financial damages on bannering campaigns. Robb used NLRB cases across the nation to target Scabby, and so far, Scabby’s First Amendment protections have held in every case that has been decided. Something I have learned throughout the years, though, is that our enemies adapt as well. We may be able to fend off these attacks on our very ability to organize, but the bad guys will be back with another idea, again and again, until they find something that they can get traction with.

Too bad for the union-busters that we know how to adapt as well, and we’ve been winning this particular fight for almost two decades. Scabby the Rat is a symbol of the labor movement, one which we have never hesitated to defend on the street, in court, or in the halls of government. And we never will.

Happy Birthday, Scabby.

United We Stand, Divided We Fall.