Raising a big stink? Try the rat. Demand is high, so unions must plan ahead and pay to put 'Scabby' on the line

The rat is a widespread symbol of protest among labor unions across the country, including the Washington area.
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010; 9:20 PM

The rat is down.

It's the motor, Doug Webber thinks. Something is wrong with the rat's motor. When the rat is up, it is 13 feet tall, it has glowing red eyes, it has black claws, it has yellow teeth, it has a pustulated sore in the middle of its belly that measures about one foot by two feet.

But now the rat is down, a pile of collapsed gray vinyl across from the Daycon headquarters in Upper Marlboro.

"We've had him since April," says Webber, the business representative for Teamsters Union Local 639 and the organizer of this Daycon picket. "But sometimes the Metro Council will call up and say, 'We need the rat back,' and then we'll give it up for a while."

A few weeks ago Webber got a call from the Metro Council, Washington's local AFL-CIO branch, which owns the rat; the Montgomery County Government Employees Organization was organizing a protest and needed an inflatable rodent. MCGEO members borrowed it, they returned it, it was broken.

The motor, which inflates the rat, is in a zippered panel on the rat's butt. Webber, a portly man with gray hair and a goatee, reaches into the panel and removes a few parts so that he can run to Home Depot for replacements. He looks down, nudges the deflated rat gently with his shoe, and says:

"Poor Scabby."

* * *

A labor union in Washington will on occasion be upset with somebody. Contract negotiations go awry. Nonunion workers get hired. At these moments, you need a symbol. You need something that is going to attract the attention of passersby, something that your members can rally around during their protest, something that is so hideous that the company whose building it sits in front of will do just about anything to get you to move it.

You need access to a rat.

"Are you doing a rat story?" Frank Larkin says with delight. Larkin is a spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in Washington. He has worked with a number of rats in protests around the country. "It's sort of like Lassie," Larkin says. "There are a number of rats, but the public thinks there is only one."

"It's a widespread symbol," says Jeff Grabelsky, a professor at Cornell's institute on labor relations, who studies unions. In urban areas, the inflatable rat has achieved a level of ubiquity, becoming one of the most recognizable protest strategies. There are Flickr pages dedicated to following them: "The Rat Patrol" has hundreds of photos submitted by rat paparazzi.

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