Mindful as this administration is of the boundaries of free speech, including those of the President’s tweets, other operatives within the administration toil in the fields well out of sight of the Rose Garden to eclipse the free speech of others.
Peter B. Robb was appointed in December 2017 by President Trump as general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), now dominated by Republican members and has moved assiduously to restrain the agency from its historic mission to favor labor over management.
Scabby the Rat is an inflatable balloon often employed by unions across the country during labor protests, especially those involving picketing. A scab as most know is a worker who crosses a picket line. Under Robb, the NLRB has initiated court actions against Scabby’s appearances along with other similar balloon symbols used by unions. On behalf of the NLRB, Robb argues that Scabby is not free speech but, in fact, an illegal and unlawful form of coercion and picketing, preventing other employees and the public from entering a site.
The iconic Scabby originated in Chicago about 1990 but gained fame through highly visible labor actions in New York City where one of the present NLRB actions has been filed. In a brief filed in a Philadelphia case several weeks ago, NLRB lawyers maintained that two Scabby balloons near the entrance to a hotel constituted unlawful coercion and crossed the line of legitimate communication. The New York case involves Scabby’s appearance at several supermarkets on Staten Island.
The [NLRB] team has cited the dangers of rodent phobia (musophobia) caused by the ghastly-looking balloons, especially among young children.
Robb’s lawyers assert that Scabby’s presence constitutes illegal picketing which is tightly governed by labor law and NLRB rules and has been the subject of several past rulings, all of which supported Scabby as a form of free speech. Prior decisions have held that stationary Scabby balloons that do not obstruct people from entering a business are not illegal. The figures are manufactured in sizes from 6 to 25 feet tall, although the NLRB has not specified whether size matters in its claim of illegal picketing and obstruction of pedestrian traffic.
Court filings obtained in the Philadelphia and New York cases, however, reflect new tactics in the agency’s attack plan. The Robb team has cited the dangers of rodent phobia (musophobia) caused by the ghastly-looking balloons, especially among young children. The briefs claim that the harm to “innocent bystanders” (the famously cited unknown persons) is a concern of the communities in which they appear. Union attorneys have countered that these allegations are clearly fantasy and that “innocent bystander” harm or injury is a myth along with musophobia allegations. An amicus brief has been filed in both cases by the Coalition Against Rodent Deflation, Infamy, and Bigotry (CARDIB) supporting the unions. In a press release, the organization criticized tweets by the President linking “rats to a debilitating characterization of Baltimore” while he fails to acknowledge high-level departures from his administration and GOP deflections denying “the proverbial sinking ship.”
The NLRB has not indicated whether it would present witnesses or innocent bystanders to testify about claims of being prevented from accessing locations. Nor has it offered any indication of lay testimony or expert medical evidence of the alleged musophobia effects of Scabby.
Some observers of this scenario suspect that a successful challenge by the NLRB may be used as precedent to prevent protesters from displaying the well-known “Baby Trump” balloons. Spokespersons for the NLRB and Robb’s office have declined to comment on this issue. On a condition of anonymity, several sources strongly suggested that the union counter-claims will prevail and that the White House is concerned that the Baby Trump balloons could proliferate as the 2020 campaign ramps up. One of the sources said that the President had been told by close aides that the Baby Trump symbols could cause pedophobia (fear of children), creating a mistaken link of his image to that of Jeffrey Epstein, a troubling prospect for the campaign’s optics. Past teleprompter mishaps amplify and echo the Access Hollywood tapes uproar.
Advocates and proponents of Scabby are less concerned about the Constitutional freedom of speech issue and worried that the general public has become attached to Scabby as a cult figure and scoff at any suggestion that it might cause fear among innocent bystanders, customers, or nonunion employees—scabs—entering a work site. Linking Scabby and Baby Trump, they insist, is a misguided effort to deflate labor protests. During sidewalk demonstrations in Philadelphia and New York, CARDIB pickets distributed doll-sized replicas of Scabby and Baby Trump to passersby and other innocent bystanders.
The world’s a nicer place, it wears a nicer face in my beautiful balloon! Up, up, and away!