In its largest form, Scabby the inflatable rat stands 25 feet tall, towering over the union laborers who use the grotesque balloon to attract attention during demonstrations. You’ve probably seen Scabby around town perched on the picket line in front of a building, forever reared up on its hind legs, its blood-red eyes glistening, its mouth full of yellowed fangs.
This vinyl creature is the creation of Mike O’Connor, owner of Big Sky Balloons and Searchlights in Plainfield, 30 miles southwest of Chicago. In 1990, reps from the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers’ union were looking for a statement piece for a protest. At the time, O’Connor’s main clients were car dealerships, his balloons advertising vehicles. “I had done panda bears, dinosaurs—cutesy characters,” he says. He sketched a rat for the bricklayers, but they thought it “wasn’t quite menacing enough. So I added claws and these festering nipples. And they were like, ‘We love it!'”
Scabby has since become a nationally recognized symbol of union unrest. “We just shipped one to Anchorage, Alaska, to a longshore union,” brags O’Connor, who entered the industry in the 70s as a hot-air-balloon pilot. The rat’s popularity inspired O’Connor to make a family of balloons targeted at the union market: Greedy Pig, Stinkin’ Skunk, and Corporate Fat Cat. The last clutches a defenseless worker by the neck.
Organized labor doesn’t wholly embrace Scabby and its cousins. In January of last year, the president of the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department, Sean McGarvey, made waves with a (now deleted) tweet: “Issued a call to retire the inflatable rat. It does not reflect our new value proposition.”
And last July, Scabby was back in the headlines when a man passing by a Teamsters’ demonstration in the Loop allegedly pulled out a box cutter, plunged it into the air-filled rodent, then ran over Scabby’s remains with his vehicle. Deflations, O’Connor understands, are just part of the balloon business. “When Godzilla came out [in 1998], we rented five Godzillas to different movie theaters,” he recalls. “All of them got stabbed.”
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