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Deflating the Rat

NLRB sues to stop unions use of the inflatable rat, but NY court sides with the unions

Kris LaGrange's picture
Jun 24, 2019

Inflatable rats and fat cats are a staple of many union protests. However, NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb is hoping to use the courts to deflate these props and make their use illegal.

This is not the first time that bosses have tried to ban inflatables by claiming that they are a coercive tool. In 2011 a case was brought before the NLRB, but the Democrats in charge said that the Rat was not coercive and any limit on a union’s use of them could raise serious first amendment concerns. However, Robb and the Republican board see things a little differently. They are trying to argue that the use of the rat amounts to unlawful coercion when it is used to protest businesses other than those directly involved in a labor dispute with a union.

To argue this specific point, the NLRB has chosen two test cases. One is a case against the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 in Philadelphia. In this instance, Local 98 put up a 12-foot high rat between the entrance to the Fairfield Inn and Libertine, the hotel restaurant. The union began handing out informational flyers about the property owner, the Wankawala Organization. Local 98 was in a dispute with one of Wankawala’s electrical contractors Tri-M Group, and the union was trying to pressure the Wankawala Organization to settle the dispute. The union returned several times.

In their lawsuit, the NLRB is claiming that this protest amounted to an illegal secondary picket. The NLRB believes that the use of an inflatable rat implied to passersby that the Fairfield Inn was the target of the protest and was coercing people not to stay there. While the case is 11 months old and an administrative judge said current precedent allows for the use of inflatable rats, Robb and the Republican board have decided to reopen the case and consider changing the precedent.

In New York, NLRB Regional Director Kathy Drew King filed a similar lawsuit on June 13th against Laborers Local 79. In the lawsuit, King asked the Eastern District court to issue a temporary restraining order that would stop Local 79 from placing rats outside of three ShopRite supermarkets in Staten Island, NY. Local 79 is protesting New Jersey businessman Kevin Mannix who the unions say is building these stores with non-union labor. According to Bloomberg News, the union has repeatedly used inflatable rats and cockroaches outside of Mannix’s developments. On June 19th, Judge Frederic Block refused to issue a temporary restraining order to stop the use of the rat. The case will now go to trial.

Experts say that Robb’s obsession with the inflatable rat is unprecedented. Even when the NLRB was under Republican control during the George W Bush years, the board did not attempt to use the courts to deflate Scabby. “It’s really, really, super aggressive,” Tamir Rosenblum, Local 79’s attorney told Bloomberg News. “And we’re just scratching our head. Because what are you saying? The law is settled at this point, not just First Amendment law but the extant case that’s governing at the board.” Even the Judge in the Local 98 case called out Robb for his aggressive tactics. In his decision, Administrative Law Judge Robert Giannasi said that the general counsel (Peter Robb) was devoted to showing that the placement of the inflatable rats constituted coercion.

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