What Do You Know About The Union Rat?

A few posts ago I covered picketing. Part I dealt with Recognitional, Informational, and Area Standards Picketing. Part 2 covered Mass Picketing, Common Situs Picketing, and Signal Picketing. I promised at the end of the signal picketing excerpt to expand on the Union Rat. Here’s me making good on that promise.

Unions consider employers who do not have unions to be rats. Rats are a reviled animal and the word rat conjures up an image of an ugly rodent in your mind. Obviously, by calling non-union employers “rats,” unions want you to react in the same manner when you learn that a certain employer does not have a union. Since subtly is not a union’s strong suit, unions have – for decades – blown up giant balloons that look like rats outside non-union worksites. These balloons can be 25 feet tall but the 12-foot model seems to be the most utilized balloon because it fits in the back of a pickup truck and can be wheeled around town without violating local ordinances.

Ironically, the maker of the rat balloon, Big Sky Balloons, is a non-union company on the outskirts of union-dominated Chicago, Illinois. Go figure. In addition to several versions of the rat, Big Sky Balloons makes a Greedy Pig, Fat Cat, cockroach, and skunk balloons at the request of unions, I’m sure. Scabby the Rat even follows me on Twitter and generally provides AFL-CIO and DOL updates.

That’s the background of the rat. Now for the legal lesson – I’m sure I just lost most of the readers.

The union rat is considered signal picketing and is protected by the free speech clause of the First Amendment of the Union States Constitution. A local municipal ordinance in New Jersey that prohibited the use of inflatable signs was overturned because it violated the First Amendment. There, the electrical workers union inflated a rat near where a health club was being built with non-union labor. After being ticketed $133 for violating the municipal ordinance, the union successfully challenged the constitutionality of that ordinance. The National Labor Relations Board has taken it even further. The Board has recently approved the use of the union rat in front of a company’s suppliers and customers’ businesses, in addition to the targeted company with which the union has a labor dispute.

If you see the rat outside your company, first take a picture and send it to me. After that, call your attorney to determine whether the rat is in fact a signal picket, whether it is lawfully positioned, and whether there is anything you can do about getting it deflated.

Matt Austin is a Columbus, Ohio labor lawyer who owns Austin Legal, LLC, a boutique law firm that limits its representation to employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. Matt can be reached by email at
Matt.Austin@Austin-Legal.com or by phone at 614.285.5342.