Scabby, an inflatable rat, stands over protestors in front of the The New School University Center in November 2022. Image Credit: Hannah Roberts

Since the 1990s, a gigantic rat with red eyes, sharp claws, and oozing belly sores has been sighted at workplaces around the United States. But when the rat showed up in front of The New School’s University Center in the early morning of November 16, 2022, the dozens of students, student workers, and faculty members gathered outside the building were glad to see him. Many snapped selfies with the massive, grotesque rat; others took hold of his claws as they passed by, as though he were a good luck token.

Meet Scabby, the inflatable rat that watches over unionizers and labor activists as they protest the poor treatment of employees. His appearance at The New School in support of last year’s part-time faculty strike was one stop in a long history of picket lines, stretching from New York to California. He’s survived knife-fights and lawsuits. Now, it turns out, the rat needs a union.

Scabby’s origins are contested. International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 150, a sheet metal union based in Chicago, claim they created Scabby in 1989: Scabby began life as a drawing of a rat on a protest sign, then moved into uncomfortably hot costumes worn by union members, then transformed into an inflatable rodent attached to a car roof. However, another Chicago Union, International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsworkers (BAC), claim their Scabby, designed in 1990 or 1991, was the first iteration of the pus-bellied inflatable rodent familiar to many today. 

In true rat form, Scabby multiplied, and is now a nationally recognized symbol of worker unrest, ranging from anywhere between six to 25 feet tall and costing anywhere between $2,000 to $10,000 for just a day’s rental. Unions may also opt to buy their own Scabby to have at the ready for a protest or strike. (Sometimes a union or council will erect multiple inflatables in one location!)

The name Scabby refers to the derogatory term “scab,” coined by unions in the nineteenth century for workers who wouldn’t join in strike efforts or businesses that would hire people specifically to cross the picket lines. His disgusting appearance parodies those who break union solidarity as traitors of the worst kind: greedy, self-serving, and shameless. (We might associate these qualities with rats, but the comparison is more than a little unfair: rats are highly social animals.) 

Unions have found that Scabby works to bring interest to their concerns—and that business owners absolutely hate him. “If you put up a balloon animal outside of a business, people are going to want to know what’s going on,” Jerry Gozdyra, an organizer with Local 1 of IUOE in New York, said in an interview with the New York Times.

While Scabby may work as a labor activist, his commitment is compromised by his personal life. Almost all Scabbies (as well as his inflatable animal friends, including cockroaches, “fat cats,” and pigs) have been produced by Big Sky Balloons, an Illinois factory that also made balloons for large Chicago businesses—the kind Scabby and his union friends might picket. According to a recent Guardian article, Big Sky is now under new ownership: a representative explained that “we don’t do any of the unions or the rat stuff any more.” 

But Scabby is a survivor, and has made it through bigger challenges than his own supply chain. After attending an Indiana RV trade show in 2018, Scabby became the subject of a lawsuit by then National Labor Relations Board general counsel Peter B. Robb, who claimed the balloon rat was so “intimidating” and “scary” that his presence could incite a “secondary boycott.” 

Under the leadership of Robb, who had been appointed by Donald Trump, the National Labor Relations Board filed briefs for several cases involving Scabby and other balloon animals in 2019, including Scabby’s appearance in Indiana and another outside a Philadelphia hotel. The board, which at the time consisted of four Republican appointees, one Democrat, and Robb, argued that the rats should be banned permanently.

The cases were resolved when President Joe Biden fired Robb in 2021. The new National Labor Relations Board later determined that inflatable rats were here to stay as important sources of labor union symbolism and history, protected by the First Amendment. Scabby remains a fixture in the world of the union—much like real rats are a fixture of New York City.

Scabby is a familiar sight for many New York City residents, especially with the uptick of labor strikes occurring across industries. He has made appearances on national news and on shows such as The Sopranos in the early 2000s. He’s been stabbed multiple times over the years by detractors of labor movements.

In early January of this year, Scabby made an appearance outside Tammany Hall as the New York City District Council of Carpenters protested the treatment of laborers as the flagship Petco store continues to delay its move into the building. Petco has not allowed the carpenters renovating the space to properly unionize for higher pay and work benefits. Scabby was also seen outside of NBC studios in February as employees walked out after a series of layoffs that they deemed “illegal.” 

Scabby’s presence is a tactical advantage. While his time at The New School amounted to a brief three or four visits (after a struggle against the violent winds of Fifth Avenue on his first day, he was reduced to a deflated pile by the second shift of picketing at 3:30 p.m.), the spirit of Scabby remained: people continued to protest in front of the university for the next 24 days until the strike ended on December 11. 

Now that he is protected by the First Amendment, citizens may see even more of Scabby. This is one rat who will not be exterminated.

An earlier version of this article was originally published in The New School Free Press on November 18, 2022.

This essay is part of a spring 2023 Public Seminar special issue on rats, curated by senior managing editor Evangeline Riddiford Graham.

Cassandra Brey is a third-year Arts in Context major at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School. Cassandra’s prior published works can be found in the NSFP and the Pace Press.