Union seeks protected status for hate symbol

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He's treated like any other member of the picket line. When Mercer County electrical union workers line up to protest businesses paying nonunion wages, he holds a sign aloft and tries to get the word out to anyone passing by.

But nothing his sign says grabs people's attention more than his simple presence. He's The Rat, the union's 10-foot inflatable balloon with beady eyes, pointy claws, chewed-up ears, buckteeth and a festering pink belly.

"He's quiet. He doesn't say much," said Wayne DeAngelo, assistant business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 269 in Lawrence Township. "But he really gets our message out. Visibility is important. Without the rat, we're wasting our time."

The inflatable rat is synonymous with union protests, from the Statehouse in Trenton to the picket lines at the writers strike in L.A. The rodent has become a shorthand for showing the disgust workers have for the way they are being treated, part of a union tradition of employing theater to get the message across.

Fame has its price, however. The union rat has found itself at the center of legal battles around the country -- and, most recently, in New Jersey, where the state Supreme Court heard arguments two weeks ago about whether the one at DeAngelo's local is protected speech under the First Amendment.

The 5-year-old rat is at the center of the case because Lawrence Township prohibits the use of balloon signs, except for those used at store grand openings. Union lawyer Andrew Watson argued the law bars the kind of protest that goes to "very heart and core of the constitution."

"There is no other way to reach a broader audience. This is a cheap and effective means of communication. It is a powerful, symbolic message," he said.

But John Dember, who represents the town, said the law doesn't stop anyone from handing out leaflets or protesting to get a message across.

"The ability to attract attention of passers-by is little affected by restrictions on using an inflatable rat," Dember said.

The case dates to April 2005, when the electrical workers local staged a protest outside a Gold's Gym when the business had electrical work done by nonunion laborers.

Four men took up positions on the sidewalk out front, handing out leaflets. The rat was anchored to a grassy spot considered part of the public right of way.

It got the attention of passers-by -- and police. The rat was removed, and, when the union brought it back later, police gave DeAngelo a summons, saying he violated the ban on inflatable signs.

After a trial, DeAngelo was convicted and agreed to pay a $133 fee and court costs. A split state appeals court panel upheld the town's sign ban. The Supreme Court has yet to make a decision.

The Mercer County controversy is the latest in a string of attempts to exterminate inflatable rats from public displays. Elsewhere, businesses sued unions, arguing the rodents shouldn't be considered protected speech. First Amendment scholars counter they fall into the category of "pure speech" that deserves protection akin to political and religious speech.

The inflatable rat idea was first pumped up in 1990, when a Chicago union asked an outdoor advertiser to come up with a flashy way to catch the attention of nonunion employers. The owners of Big Sky Balloons and Searchlights, of Plainfield, Ill., which made the first rodent, called it "Scabby the Rat." Today, they sell rats up to 25 feet tall, charging as much as $8,950.

The rat in New Jersey's debate gets out about 50 times a year. It is inflated by a small electric blower that can be hooked into a car's cigarette lighter. When not on the picket line, it deflates to a storage bag that resides -- fittingly -- in the union's boiler room next to an inflatable pig that goes out when the rat is double-booked.

Union officials say they first try to talk to business owners to resolve the wage issues. The rat is a tool of last resort. "If they say 'Hey, leave us alone' then we bring out our friend," said DeAngelo.

Some unions also use other animals -- a cockroach, a skunk -- to get their message out, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University. She said street theater has been a part of union demonstrations for centuries.

"It's people's lives," said Bronfenbrenner. "There's a lot of passion, so it's a perfect thing. You've got a perfect villain and a perfect hero. It's a natural."

William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens wrote about labor issues. Rallies in the 1800s involved workers acting out skits about conditions. During the 1912 "Bread and Roses Strike," the female workers at a Massachusetts textile mill wrapped themselves in the American flag after the company accused them of being un-American.

"They carried them. They used the American flag in everything they did. ... They literally wore the American flag in showing their patriotism," said Bronfenbrenner

Today, protest theater finds unions storming the stage at major shareholder meetings or interrupting online corporate gatherings.

In New Jersey, rats are still in vogue. In total, about a dozen inflatable rats make regular appearances in the Garden State.

The keepers of the Lawrence Township rat are anxious to see the case end, saying banners just don't cut it. Until then, the rat can only make guest appearances out of town.

"He can't get blown up in his own home town," said DeAngelo. "It's sad."


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