Rats! NYC union’s inflatable rodent suffers another blow

Wednesday, July 14, 1999

The rat came back — but his stay was short-lived.

The 30-foot-tall rodent, largest of several inflatable rats owned by workers' unions in New York City, was returned to union officials on May 14 after spending 36 days in police custody. Officials with the Asbestos, Lead, and Hazardous Waste Laborers Local 78 were delighted to have their “attractive and expressive” communications tool back. Little did they know that less than two months later, their beloved rodent would suffer an even worse fate.

The rat was seized by police April 8 as several union members passed out leaflets in front of CBS headquarters, protesting that company's use of non-union labor. Police claimed that the rat — which was secured atop a legally parked truck — was blocking traffic and demanded that union member Frank Bianchi deflate it. When Bianchi refused, he was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and police seized the rat, claiming it as evidence.

The union responded by suing the city in federal court, claiming New York officials had violated the union's First Amendment rights to free speech.

“The rat is an integral part of [the union's] expressive activity,” Lowell Peterson, attorney for the union, said. “In my view, it's a classic First Amendment speech issue.”

Sal Speziale, president of Local 78, agreed. “The rat sends out the message that there's something going on wrong in the building. It's an extension of freedom of speech.”

When a Midtown Community Court judge dismissed the charges against Bianchi in May, police returned the rat and the union put it right back to work.

Less than two months after its return, however, the union's rodent found itself targeted for extermination.

On July 1, several union members assembled at a MetLife-owned residential complex in east Manhattan's Stuyvesant Town, rat in tow. There they planned to pass out handbills protesting the company's use of an asbestos contractor who had allegedly committed health and safety violations.

As union members began their protest, private security guards hired by MetLife demanded that they leave, arguing that the road on which they were protesting was private property. When the protesters refused to leave, the conflict escalated.

Union officials said that the security guards then began spraying the handbillers with Mace, hitting union member Edison Severino at “point-blank range.”

During the struggle, a security officer began stabbing the union's rat with an unknown object, striking it six times, Peterson said.

Peterson says that the union is preparing litigation against MetLife, claiming that the company violated members' First Amendment right to free speech.

“We have a whole slew of cases where the courts have squarely ruled that that kind of location is not private property for First Amendment issues of expression,” Peterson said.

He also says that the union is attempting to revoke the head of security's peace-officer status. He believes the officer's actions were out of control.

“Everybody gets angry in these situations; it's understandable. But you can't attack people and destroy an $8,000 rat,” he said.

Officials from MetLife refused to comment on the incident.

For now, what some newspapers have dubbed “the mascot of the city of New York” remains out of commission.

“Right now, he's in the hospital being taken care of,” said Speziale.