Unions are slowly making their way back into the news these days, perhaps because it’s a presidential election season, perhaps because graduate students are now considering their right to bargain collectively at several universities, primarily in the Ivy League. To mark this trend, a huge inflatable rat, nicknamed Scabby, has appeared at Long Island University, where stalled negotiations resulted in a lockout before faculty and administration agreed on a contract, and at Columbia University, where graduate assistants are about to vote on unionizing.
I’m all for unions. But there are a couple of strange things about this inflatable rat, who’s been around for a quarter-century. First, although he has been created to be as ugly and nasty as he can appear, including the pink scab on his stomach, Scabby has drawn an affectionate following. He even has a Facebook page, where fans cry out, “Go, Scabby!” every time the rat pops up at a particular location. If the rat’s named for a scab, a nonunion worker who crosses picket lines, why are we cheering him? People love posing for photos with the hideous beast, and the uglier he gets, the more we seem to love him. He’s a mascot of sorts, but as one pro-labor organizer tweeted, “The symbol of Scabby appearing at a strike is a clear signal to the public that the management is attacking its workforce and the public by using unfair and unsafe practices.” In other words, the rat is supposed to stand in for the bad guys.
Which brings me to my second point. The phrase that birthed Scabby is actually nonunion rat. Rats have long signified disease as well as perfidious cunning. Some may take offense at this exploitation of a smart little mammal. My son, for instance, nurtured a rat he named Skibber for two years in order to earn himself a dog, and he liked to carry Skibber around the house balanced on his head, like a coonskin cap. And a fellow participant in my singing trip to Corsica this summer reported that she had “rescued” a rat from Prospect Park in Brooklyn and brought it home, with the consequence that she now hosts 21 rats in five cages, and claims to love and have named them all. But these folks are outliers. Traditionally, to be called a rat is an insult, as is being called a scab, a term that originated with the scabby lesions of smallpox. In other words, disease; impurity. A union statement attributed to Jack London claims that
when a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and angels weep in heaven, and the Devil shuts the gates of Hell to keep him out. No man has a right to scab so long as there is a pool of water to drown his carcass in, or a rope long enough to hang his body with.
But Scabby has become known as the union rat, not the nonunion rat. As one pro-union website puts it, “Scabby is a symbol of solidarity, and the most visible symbol of a labor movement that isn’t dead yet.”
Does it matter whether we love Scabby or see him as the enemy? Perhaps not. His presence either way serves as a signal that union activity is afoot. His use by unions or groups trying to organize was recently confirmed as protected free speech by the Seventh Circuit. If he becomes emblematic, not of union busters but of union members, that won’t be the first time that a phrase has come to acquire its opposite meaning. And who knows? Maybe we’ll start liking gray, pointy-nosed, long-toothed rats a little better. What will happen to our feelings about pigs, what with inflatable pigs representing wicked management, is a question for another day.
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