N.Y. Unions Cage Inflatable Rat, Try Teamwork

October 20, 2008

The giant inflatable rat has long been a prop used by labor unions to call attention to companies using nonunion labor.

But a number of construction trade unions in western New York have agreed to put the rat to rest in favor of more collaborative talks with employers.

During a September 14 rally in Buffalo, New York, union representatives cut up a 15-foot-tall rat balloon to symbolize that their organizations were ready for a more “business-friendly approach,” says Michael McNally, business manager for Local 22 of the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union.

“Our philosophy for the past 15 years hasn’t created any more market share for us. We have been viewed as troublemakers,” he says. “Now we are going to use PR to dispel those perceptions.”

The unions that agreed to the new approach make up the Buffalo Building & Construction Trades Council, which represents 17 unions and 10,000 workers in the region.

The council has established a labor management team to work with employers and drum up more business for the unions, says council president Paul Brown.
“We just had a lunch date … with some contractors,” he says. “This is the first step.”

The unions are going to use marketing and face-to-face meetings with contractors as part of their new strategy, McNally says.

Despite the notoriety of the inflatable rat, it’s smart for the unions to move away from using it, because the prop has lost much of its shock value over the years, says Gerald Hathaway, a partner at law firm Littler Mendelson.

“When rats started showing up 15 years ago, I used to get panicked calls from employers,” he says. “Now when the rat shows up, tourists are taking pictures with it.”

That might be so, but the construction union in New York City is going to continue using the inflatable rat to get its message across, says Richard Weiss, a spokesman for Local 79 of the Construction and General Building Laborers.

“For us in New York City, that rat continues to be an effective tool to get the public’s attention,” Weiss says. “It is working very well for us.”

It remains to be seen whether the unions in western New York will make headway with their new tactic, but it’s worth a shot, says David Gregory, a professor of law at St. John’s University in Queens, New York.

“There are different ways to catch flies; there is vinegar and there is honey,” he says. “Only time will tell if this will work.”

And although the unions are giving the new collaborative approach a try, they won’t rule out bringing back the rat at some juncture if talks fail.

“We are going to give this a good, honest effort,” Brown says. “But I’m not saying that we wouldn’t go back to being more confrontational if this doesn’t work.”

—Jessica Marquez

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