Union organizer Eli Kent says his inflatable rat drew jeers from passersby in Bentleys and Mercedes-Benzes when he set up the 15-foot-tall plastic rodent outside the gates of the Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J., recently. "It's a pretty clear expression of our free speech rights, and it makes a point," says Kent, 34, who is trying to persuade the club's workers to join the Asbestos, Lead & Hazardous Waste Laborers union.
Kent has an unusual job description: Part of his work involves carrying around giant brown rats—along with cockroaches and the occasional coffin—for union protests outside hotels, office buildings, and factories. He transports the critters in a gray Chevy Silverado each day to a protest site. His union owns six of the rats, which are made by Chicago-based Big Sky Balloons and Searchlights and run from $2,250 to $7,800 apiece.
Thanks to a complaint from a Brandon (Fla.)-based medical center where one of the rats was displayed, the National Labor Relations Board is considering whether these displays should be restricted. Placing these towering rodents in front of a workplace could be considered an unlawful form of picketing by some courts if they are viewed by employees as a signal to leave their jobs. The board in September upheld the right of unions to display two-dimensional, 16-foot banners at picket sites.
A ruling in favor of the bulkier blow-up rats would underscore the agency's shift since President Barack Obama's appointees gained a majority in March, says former NLRB Chairman Peter Schaumber. "The board is taking startlingly aggressive positions aimed at augmenting union power," says Schaumber, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush and is now a labor consultant. The labor panel has also begun exploring electronic-voting methods for unionization elections. Business groups object and prefer that employees cast their votes in person and in supervised secret ballots to shield workers from undue pressure by unions. Labor leaders say Obama has simply restored the board's mandate to protect workers after Bush's pro-management tilt. "The board is doing nothing more than taking a balanced and reasonable approach to the law," says Bill Lurye, AFL-CIO associate general counsel.
The frequent rodent displays outside New York buildings have "gotten a bit old," says Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York. "Clearly, people would prefer they not be there—it can be disruptive because it blocks the sidewalks, and it's a bit embarrassing." That's the whole point, says Kent.
The bottom line: Unions' use of giant props is among the many backlogged issues a recast labor-relations board will soon address.