The Rat

Haidy Geismar, NYU
Those of you based in NYC will be very familiar with this artefact, but for those further afield, I wanted to draw your attention to a startling materialisation of labour law, unethical corporate practice, and performative street life.
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On any given day, one is likely to confront a large inflatable rat on the streets of NYC, flanked by union representatives campaigning for fair and lawful employment. The rat comes out at construction sites, restaurants, and even at NYU where it became part of the protests surrounding the controversy over the graduate student’s right to unionise.
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A brief google search (“inflatable rat new york”) discovers that Construction and General Building Laborers Local 79 says it introduced the rat to New York about 1997, borrowing the idea from Chicago unions. Since then, other unions have bought inflatable rally rats of varying sizes, and at any time there could be more than half a dozen rats humiliating employers around the city. While unions set their own standards, Local 79’s system is probably typical.
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A “rat contractor” is an old phrase in construction and can refer to an employer who is not providing proper safety equipment, benefits or wages, said Richard A. Weiss, communications director for Local 79. When the union gets a complaint, if the job site isn’t one the union is already monitoring, the union research department checks it with the reports all contractors are required to file with the city. The actual decision to send out one of the gray, red-eyed, snarling rats is usually made by Local 79’s market development department, Mr. Weiss said.
The Mason Tenders District Council, which oversees Local 79, owns seven rats, mostly from 12 to 15 feet high but including a monster 30-footer, which is often used for high-rise sites. “We’ve got a whole family of them,” Mr. Weiss said. Other unions can request a visiting rat.
(taken from the site about the NYU strike, nerdsforgsoc.blogspot.com/2006/02/beware-rat.html)
The rat is a visceral reminder of the normally invisible labour force that props up the city. It is the inversion of a cartoon character, a sinister materialisation of unethical practice and a humerous reminder of ethical and moral responsibilities around labour. I have never seen such a carnavalesque and everyday form of protest on other city streets outside of the US, outside of the extra-ordinary events of large protests such as the huge anti-war rallies in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.
Does anyone know of any other strike material cultures?

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2 Responses to The Rat

  1. Patrick Laviolette (SVMC, Massey Univ.) October 9, 2008 at 12:18 am #

    Not as an answer to your question as such but I just wanted to point out the iconographic similarity with Banksy’s subversive and often anti-capitalist use of rat imagery in his graffiti art.

  2. Nekosukimusume July 24, 2009 at 6:48 am #

    Where can I see the huge rat? Can the rat pose for a photo? I want to take its photos with my digital camera.

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