POLITICS

Biden Labor Appointee Frees Scabby The Rat From Legal Peril

The new acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board appears to be winding down his predecessor's fight with the labor protest icon.

The end of the Trump presidency has already impacted many lives, including that of a giant inflatable rat.

Scabby the Rat, as the labor protest icon is known, recently found himself in the crosshairs of Peter Robb, the former Trump-appointed general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board. Robb wanted to ban unions’ use of Scabby in particular situations, under the premise that a big ugly balloon could be illegally “coercive.”

But President Joe Biden fired Robb within hours of taking office, and installed Peter Sung Ohr as the labor board’s new acting general counsel. Ohr has already taken the first steps in winding down his predecessor’s battle with Scabby.

In a motion released by the board last week, Ohr seeks to withdraw a complaint that Robb had issued against the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, over the union’s deployment of a 12-foot Scabby in its dispute with an RV company. The motion was first reported by Law360.

Robb had claimed that Scabby’s presence was so intimidating that it could coerce third parties that have nothing to do with the spat, such as the RV company’s contractors. That would make it an illegal “secondary boycott,” Robb argued. Unions have been concerned about the case not only because they love Scabby but because it has broader implications for First Amendment rights in labor disputes. 

Scabby hanging out in Chicago.
Scabby hanging out in Chicago.

In the new motion, Ohr’s lawyer, Tiffany Limbach, said the complaint against the union for using Scabby “undermines current Board law and is not in the public interest.” The union’s actions were legal, Limbach went on, and pursuing the case would amount to “a waste of valuable Agency resources.”

The NLRB’s general counsel acts as a quasi-prosecutor, bringing charges against employers and unions for violating collective bargaining law. Moving to withdraw the complaint against Scabby suggests Ohr ― as well as any Democratic successor ― would be unlikely to pursue similar cases in the Biden era.

Scabby’s case gained some national recognition due to the rat’s high profile, but it was one of many actions by Robb that unions viewed as a gift to employers and a betrayal of workers. The Service Employees International Union lobbied the Biden administration to immediately oust Robb, even though Robb had 10 months left at the board in a four-year, Senate-confirmed term, saying Robb was a “uniquely destructive figure” in labor relations.

Shortly after his inauguration, Biden asked Robb to submit his resignation. When he declined, the president canned him. The AFL-CIO labor federation, which includes 55 unions, called Robb’s dismissal “the first step toward giving workers a fair shot again.”

Biden named Ohr as the acting general counsel the following week, ushering in what’s bound to be an era less hostile to unions. Ohr is a longtime board official best known for his determination that scholarship football players at Northwestern University were employees of the school and therefore eligible to hold a union election.