Ask the average resident who the biggest rat in D.C. is, and you’ll probably get a variety of responses. The replies will range from a number of politicians from both poltical parties, to Daniel Snyder, the owner of The Washington Redskins. And while those may be valid answers in their own right, the rat to which I’m referring is one that I saw on a recent bike ride. His name is Scabby.
Scabby the Rat is a giant inflatable rat with sharp, menacing buckteeth and claws, beady red eyes and a belly scattered with festering scabs and swollen nipples. He is used by protesting or striking labor unions as part of protests against companies which are utilizing nonunion employees or contractors, serving as a sign of opposition and to call public attention to those companies’ practices.
The original Scabby was born in 1990, when the Chicago bricklayers union was looking for something big and nasty to get their point across at a protest. They ended up having the Big Sky Balloons and Searchlights Company fabricate a custom-designed inflatable rat, which the union used as the centerpiece of their protest. They opted for using the inflatable character because of the use of the word “rat” to refer to nonunion contractors.
After participating in that first protest, Scabby the Rat quickly caught on with other unions. Business began booming for the Big Sky Company, which found itself taking orders from all over the country. Today Scabby’s decendants come in a variety of sizes and appearances, and can be found thriving throughout the United States. Scabby has even been spotted on front page of the Wall Street Journal, as well as the New Yorker magazine and the New York Times. Scabby can also be spotted in an episode of The Sopranos. In fact, Scabby the Rat has his own Facebook page.
Ever since unions began using Scabby, many of the companies being picketed have filed lawsuits trying to exterminate Scabby, charging that the use of the giant inflatable rats constituted unlawful picketing. Although some courts initially agreed and barred Scabby from appearing, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2011 that the use of the inflatable rat is not considered an unlawful activity in that it constituted symbolic speech.
And with that ruling, I think we can expect to see the rat population grow even bigger.