Found  /  Origin Story

Scabby the Rat Is an American Labor Icon. Why Are His Manufacturers Disowning Him?

The frightening character who appears amid US union disputes can be traced back to a single factory, which wasn’t unionized.

In New York – a city poised to hire its first “rat czar” after rat sightings doubled in the past year – street-side rodents are fairly commonplace. But the rat stationed on a Union Square curb is something of a different beast. This one is roughly 10ft tall, with incisors the size of iPads. Its eyes are bloodshot, its claws extended, and its belly marked with what look like open, oozing sores. Depending whom you ask, its name is “Scabby”, or just “the Rat”.

Since January, give or take, the Rat has been strapped into the bed of a Ford F-150, staring down Tammany Hall. The historic building is poised to become a giant pet store, Petco’s New York flagship, a three-floor bestial mall equipped with its own animal hospital.

But Petco has a reputation for hiring non-union contractors and the city’s District Council of Carpenters is protesting the move by inflating a huge Scabby out front. “Shame on Petco,” a nearby LED truck sign reads, “for destroying the area standard wages, health benefits, and pensions for construction workers.”

Most days, the Rat stands there alone. But few need more context; Scabby is, as the name suggests, a familiar signifier of organized labor. He appears beside workers nationwide – at an Amazon warehouse in Illinois over the summer of 2021, at a Philadelphia Starbucks the following July, and at a Rockford gas station just a few months back, where he was “mortally wounded” after a disgruntled employee took it upon himself to “shank defenseless Scabby in his side”.

It’s impossible to say how many Scabbies are on the street at any given time, but there are 60 unions in the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions, which represents over 87% of unionized workers in the country – and many, perhaps most, have their own collections of inflatable Scabbies. A representative from the Laborers’ International Union of North America (Liuna) estimated it had “40 or 50 rats” in the eastern region alone. An organizer with the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsworkers (BAC) guessed it had even more: “I’d be surprised if the number was less than 60.”

The rat elicits polarizing opinions (they tend to fall neatly along worker-management lines). But to both sides, Scabby is, as one organizer told NPR in 2021, an “iconic symbol of a labor dispute”.

If Scabby has name recognition, it is a relatively new feature in the history of American labor. The presence of building-sized rodent inflatables at worker actions was an outgrowth of the post-Reagan era, just a few years after the 1981 Patco air-traffic controllers strike sent union membership, and the wages they fought for, into the gutter. The exact origin of the labor dispute icon is, appropriately, disputed; two Chicago unions claim they independently came up with the idea, and their members still loyally, if somewhat wryly, guard their proprietary stake.