A rat bigger than even the rodents of New York City is the linchpin of a case that may prompt the U.S. labor board to reinterpret how, when or even if certain union protests are protected by labor laws and the First Amendment.
A dispute out of Philadelphia involving Scabby the Rat, an inflatable protest icon used by unions for decades, is finally before the four current members of the Republican-controlled National Labor Relations Board, following a lengthy effort by agency general counsel Peter Robb to find a case that could be used to get use of the rat outlawed.
To Robb, the rat is so confrontational that its use amounts to unlawful coercion when employed to protest businesses other than those directly involved in a labor dispute with a union. The National Labor Relations Act prohibits unions from engaging in “secondary picketing” or other actions meant to coerce a neutral employer.
More consequentially, the general counsel is also arguing that speech in labor disputes has only limited First Amendment protection, and that the government can justify stronger regulations on what unions can say or communicate. It’s a politically fraught topic that is almost certain sure to draw legal challenges.
“The fact that the NLRB is trying to change it underscores what a powerful symbol the rat has come to serve as,” said Katie Fallow, a senior staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute. “If the rat didn’t have any impact, it wouldn’t be paying attention. And that makes its actions a little more suspect.”
Robb declined to comment on the case.