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Inflatable rats' future at labor demonstrations up in the air

By The Associated Press,
First Amendment Center Online staff

CLEVELAND — A National Labor Relations Board decision might be poison for the inflatable rats that labor organizations have been using for more than a decade to demonstrate at job sites employing nonunion workers.

An NLRB administrative law judge agreed with business owners that using the rat balloons constituted unlawful picketing in two cases involving the Laborers’ Eastern Region Organizing Fund in New York.

The labor group argued that the rats were used to draw the public’s attention and did not interfere with business at the job site.

Some Ohio union members say they think the rats should be allowed.

“We’re hoping that people come to their senses,” said Terry Joyce, secretary-treasurer of the Laborers Local 310, which recently displayed a 20-foot rat in downtown Cleveland at a garage being renovated.

An Ohio judge came to a different conclusion from the administrative judge in a case involving union carpenters protesting a Discount Drug Mart warehouse expansion in Medina County, south of Cleveland.

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge William Coyne said the inflatable rats were protected speech, “much like the term Hitler, Gestapo, skunk, scab.”

“And we all know that a scab is a common term by unions in their disputes with management,” Coyne said.

In another Ohio case, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled that the giant balloons are protected speech. In February, a three-judge panel ruled that the city of Fairfield could not enforce an ordinance that would prohibit the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers from using an inflatable rat during protests outside a car dealership.

Fairfield officials have appealed the case to the Supreme Court, The Plain Dealer has reported.

Meanwhile, the Laborers’ Eastern Region Organizing Fund has appealed the administrative judge’s decision in its two cases to the National Labor Relations Board. The board’s general counsel, Arthur Rosenfeld, has suggested the board believes the rat balloons provoke the same response as traditional, unlawful picketing.

“The court cases reflect that the rat has made its claw marks felt,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor specializing in labor at the University of California at Berkeley.

The Operating Engineers Local 150, a union that covers parts of Illinois, Indiana and Iowa, still has a balloon it displayed in the first known use of the inflatable rat. It was designed by friends of a union member who worked in the movie industry.

Since then, the inflatable rats have become fixtures at union demonstrations, especially those in the construction trades. At the Cleveland International Film Festival this spring, protesters used a rat to demonstrate against a decision to use nonunion managers instead of union projectionists. A rat with a sign that said “Jobs Not Bush” was part of a protest when President Bush spoke at the Cleveland Convention Center last year.

But not every union member would mind if inflatable rats were no longer used in protests.

“It gives a bad image of the trades,” said John Porada, executive vice president of the Construction Employers Association, a group made up of more than 600 union contractors in northeast Ohio.

And even if the rat is outlawed, labor organizers say another animal could spring up to replace it. Some protesters have used a skunk, a gorilla or a cat holding a rat.


Rats! NYC union's inflatable rodent suffers another blow

'The rat is an integral part of [the union's] expressive activity,' says union attorney. 07.14.99

6th Circuit: City can't bar rat balloon at union protests
Appeals court says Fairfield, Ohio, showed no evidence that 12-foot-tall inflatable rodent was a hazard. 02.11.05

Inflatable rat can't be declared a pest, rules N.J. high court
Justices overturn lower court ruling that found Lawrence Township officials could bar 10-foot rodent, which has been used by unions to signal labor disputes. 02.05.09

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