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Trump bites rat

The US president is taking aim at the workers’ redoubtable rodent ally – but who will burst first, asks SOLOMON HUGHES

DONALD TRUMP’S anti-union hit man is out to puncture one of the workers’ best friends — a giant inflatable rat.

It shows that the right likes to make a noise about “free speech,” but when the workers want to speak out, it reaches for the law to shut them up.

British people might be familiar with the eight-foot inflatable rat from campaigns supported by the trade union Unite.

The big blow-up rodent, whose proper name is “Scabby the Rat,” has been particularly active supporting pickets and protests against blacklisting.

The Blacklist Support Group has been fighting for years now against the employers, especially in construction, who kept secret lists of union and safety activists, so they could be denied work.

The group is run by grassroots union activists from many different unions who have themselves been victims of blacklisting, but they have had particular inflatable-rat support from Unite: I spent a morning demonstrating in my home town of Southampton with Scabby the Rat outside the offices of Keir, one of the construction firms that backed the blacklist, a few years back — so I take attacks on the oversized pneumatic scavenger personally.

Scabby’s origins lie in the United States, where unions have been using him to campaign for decades: nobody is quite sure when he came up from the sewers, but there have been sightings of Scabby the Rat on union protests since as long ago as 1989.

A “scab” — as I’m sure all Morning Star readers know — means a strike-breaker, or, more generally, someone who undermines union campaigns.

Employers in the US have been trying to get Scabby outlawed for some years, so far without success.

In 2011 the National Labour Relations Board, which regulates unions and picket lines in the US, heard a case against Scabby when the Sheet Metal Workers Union objected to a construction company that normally used union labour deciding to use less-well paid non-union staff on a fit-out job in a Florida hospital.

The union inflated Scabby outside the hospital as part of a protest. The National Labour Relations Board was asked to consider if this was “threatening,” “frightening” or “coercive.”

These issues arose because the hospital argued the rat was involved in “secondary picketing” — the Metal Workers Union was directly in dispute with the construction company; its dispute with the hospital was “secondary.”

The National Labour Relations Board ruled in favour of the rat. Despite continued attempts to ban him from labour disputes and strikes, the board has been ruling for the rat ever since.

Or it did until Trump came along.

Last November Trump put a lawyer called Peter B Robb in charge of the National Labour Relations Board. Robb and other Republican appointees are trying to make the board pro-employer and anti-union.

Robb had a long legal career representing the bosses: he even worked on US president Ronald Reagan’s court case against striking air traffic controllers in 1981, which was a shocking attack on workers’ rights.

Reagan sacked over 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, banning them from working for the government, and also banning their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organisation (Patco).

The president of one Patco “local” (what we would call a union branch) was taken from court in leg irons, handcuffs and waist restraints and jailed for 60 days because he said he would strike regardless of court orders. The attack on Patco was a severe blow to US unions.

True to form, Robb has started off at the Labour Relations Board by attacking workers’ rights. He immediately cancelled a campaign against employers who improperly classify workers as self-employed contractors.

And now Robb wants to take on the rat. His office recently filed a 41-page motion arguing that protesting with Scabby the Rat “is confrontational conduct that is tantamount to secondary picketing.”

Robb was prompted by Scabby appearing outside a hotel in Philadelphia and some supermarkets on Staten Island, New York, where Scabby was joined by an inflatable cockroach — both in support of labour disputes.

Now the courts will once more decide Scabby’s fate. This shows three things.

First, Trump’s claim to stand up for “everyday working American families” is as convincing as his hair colour. Trump put a guy who helped to jail workers in charge of the Labour Relations Board — and now he wants to puncture the workers’ inflatable friend.

Second, Republicans and the right like to talk about “free speech” — but as soon as the workers speak out, they reach for bans.

Third, the workers’ cause is international. We share the same fight — which is clearly shown by the fact that the workers’ champion, an inflatable rat, fights for the workers and is attacked by the bosses on two continents.

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