Most New Yorkers have come across some version of Scabby the Rat, the giant inflatable rats used by unions to protest buildings that employ non-union labor, but did you know about the giant inflatable cats used by landlords in retaliation? They were in vogue in the early 2000s when Rats author Robert Sullivan penned this piece for the New Yorker about the inflatable creatures. In 2005, Gothamist reported of one such cat atop Radio City. Since then however, it appears that unions have gained control of inflatable cat messaging, creating their own version of the cat squeezing the construction worker:
The first inflatable rats appeared in NYC around 1976, with a New York Times editorial reporting on the-then “latest rat-oriented development” being “the use of giant inflatable rats by unions.” But mass production of inflatable rats comes from Chicago-based entrepreneurs Mike and Peggy O’Connor, founder of Big Sky Balloons and Searchlights. According to Robert Sullivan, author of the book Rats, in The New Yorker, O’Connor was a hot-air balloonist who created the first superpressure balloon that could stay in place without rising.
O’Connor designed the first of his rats in 1990 for a union in Chicago and by the year 2000, was selling four to five a week, usually to unions on the East Coast. The unions, who pay about $8000 per rat, usually want these rats to look as mean as possible, and some limited design modifications have been done to the rats over time. Peggy O’Connor told Vice in 2013 that Union organizers in Chicago “wanted a mean, ghastly looking kind of rat.” In The New Yorker article Michael O’Conner says, “We’re getting into changing them a little. You know, with festering nipples on their chests. We’re getting into airbrushing.” O’Connor’s company today makes rats anywhere from six feet to twenty-five feet tall, along with two other analogous animals, Fat Cat and greedy Pig.
Earlier in 2013, it was reported that Scabby the Rat might be phased out by the unions themselves, and later in 2019, legal challenges to the rats have emerged (with some connection to Donald Trump). But don’t worry, there’s giant bronze replica of the rat called “The New Colossus,” that was once at the Lever House (390 Park Avenue), a project of The Bruce High Quality Foundation, perhaps it needs to come back.
Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.