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The Inflatable Rat: The Striking Writers’ Lightweight Heavy

It’s a nearly ubiquitous balloon animal, but it won’t be joining friendly floaters such as Big Bird in the upcoming Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It’s a different breed. Angry. Unsightly. We’re talking, of course, about The Rat: The giant inflatable creature with the menacing buck teeth, long claws, and red, beady eyes. It scored another cameo in The New York Times yesterday, looming over the TV and movie writers on strike.

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The term rat has long referred to businesses that hire non-union labor. These days, it’s a broader symbol of injustice, used to target companies, industries, and governments that come up short in any number of ways, from inadequate health-care coverage to environmental violations to writer-unfriendly policies on digital rights.

It was another busy year for this indefatigable inflatable. It crouched outside a hotel construction project in Buffalo and the annual meeting for Smithfield Foods in Williamsburg, Virginia. It glared at the State Capital in St. Paul, Minnesota and the Kennedy Space Center in Orlando.

A few years ago I tracked down the origin of the Rat.

Mike O’Connor, the owner of Big Sky Balloons & Search Lights in Plainville, Ill., is its Dr. Frankenstein. In 1991, he created the monstrosity at the request of a union member in nearby Chicago. O’Connor, who has designed more than 100 balloons over the years, most of which are cute characters like Herbie the Love Bug, sketched the rat he had in mind.

“It’s not mean enough,” objected the union man.

O’Connor added bigger fangs, sharper teeth, and a disgusting pink belly with, he recalls, “festering nipples.”

“I love it,” the man gushed.

So did other unions in the Chicago area, then the New York area, and eventually all over the country. “We do a lot of King Kongs and Godzillas, but The Rat is our best seller,” O’Connor told me.

It comes in several sizes, from the squat-looking six-footer ($2,000) to the towering 30-footer ($7,700). Because many communities have ordinances that limit the height of inflatable balloon displays, the most popular size is the twelve-footer, small enough to stand upright in the bed of a pick-up truck, yet big enough to attract attention.

Back in 2003, Laborers International Union of North America had about 20 inflatable rats. “I’d say 90 percent of the time, it is the turning point,” said Randy Mayhew, the group’s organizing director . “It’s the nudge that’s necessary to get someone talking to resolve an issue. Usually, employers go bonkers when they see it across from their property.”

The Rat also attracts its share of controversy. A company complains. The authorities demand that the balloon come down. The union refuses. That’s how The Rat wound up in police custody in Troy, N.Y. a few years ago. Within days, however, all charges were dropped.

But some companies refuse to be intimidated by the rat pack. There was the savvy bank president who called Big Sky and erected a 20-foot cougar balloon towering over two rat balloons brought by a local union.

Here’s hoping that the Rat nudges the TV networks to resolve their differences with the writers and end the first such strike since 1988. As a diehard fan of The Office, The Daily Show, and Friday Night Lights, I’m in no mood for the execs to Mickey Mouse around on this.

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