Trade unionists join with elected officials at Federal Hall to denounce efforts to bar the use of inflatable balloons in a Staten labor dispute.

New York, NY – Members of the unionized building trades rallied at the molded feet of President George Washington Thursday afternoon on Wall Street — calling federal attempts to bar the use of satirical cartoon balloons in a nasty labor dispute on Staten Island a brazen assault on the First Amendment rights of all Americans. 

“What the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] is doing should matter to every single person in this city and every single person across this country,” said Tamir Rosenblum, an attorney helping to represent Laborers Local 79 in the Staten Island fight. “It is not just a fight about whether we can blow up that balloon or that balloon.”

New Yorkers are well accustomed to seeing “Scabby The Rat” or one of his cartoonish brethren squatting on sidewalks all over town wherever unions have a bone to pick with the bosses.  

Laborers Local 79 got into trouble on Staten Island last spring, when the union started using the time-honored balloons to protest the nonunion construction of a new Mannix Family Market-owned ShopRite supermarket being built inside a Hylan Boulevard shopping center.

Mannix balked at the “Scabby” & Co., absolving both ShopRite and themselves of any responsibility over hiring, arguing that Local 79’s beef is really with Kimco Realty Corp. and GTL Construction LLC. The Staten Island company then filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the union at the NLRB. 

Mike Hellstrom: “I am a proud military veteran. I served this country specifically for a First Amendment free speech right, brothers and sisters.”

The NLRB, under Trump appointee General Counsel Peter B. Robb, has since tried to enjoin Local 79’s use of “Scabby,” but the courts have so far blocked the injunction. 

“We show up and we have a balloon,” Rosenblum continued. “We have a balloon and a message. And we talk about the fact that when the money doesn’t make it into the workers’ pockets, it’s not just because of the [general contractor] employing them — it’s a system. We get to talk about that — we get to say that.”

The fight over “Scabby The Rat” and his pals, nevertheless, continues. 

“We’re not here by coincidence today, standing in the shadows of Wall Street,” said Mike Hellstrom, Mason Tenders District Council assistant business manager. “You think about it — corporations try to hide themselves behind someone else to shrug off their responsibility and say, ‘It’s not me — it’s someone else.’ Well, the people that are building that shop in Staten Island — we know that they’re responsible for the irresponsible [hiring] and we’re going to do everything in our power [to fight] — we’re gonna blow up rats; we’re gonna protest; we’re gonna hand out signs.”

Local 79 organizer Bernard Callegari said the American worker is under attack — “and the one thing that we have to defend ourselves is free speech.”

“They want us to be quiet while they steamroll over our families,” Callegari said. “I don’t know about you, but you’re not gonna shut me up.”

New York City Assembly Member Marcos Crespo [D-85th District]specifically blasted Donald Trump. 

“I will be damned if we let this president — his minions or some judge that should be in the court — say that our First Amendment rights don’t count,” Assembly Member Crespo said. “To say our freedom of speech doesn’t count — or to somehow try to tell men and women who work hard every day to build this city and country that you can’t speak out when injustice is being imposed on you — hell no!”

Trade unionist stand up for the freedom of speech.

Equally exasperated Assembly Member Michael Benedetto [D-82nd District] likened “Scabby The Rat” and his ilk to “little toys that should not scare anybody.”

“It is free speech — and for God’s sake, if we don’t stand up for free speech — then what are we standing for in this country?” Assembly Member Benedetto said. 

City Council Member Francisco Moya [D-21st District] further sounded the alarm.

“Scabby The Rat symbolizes your freedom of speech and your freedom to organize,” the city council member said. “When these courts and our government are more afraid of that rat than they are about protecting the very workers that built this country — what does that say?”

Reinaldo Torres, an organizer with Sheet Metal Workers Local 28, invoked the memory of executed union activist Joe Hill, and said without freedom of speech there is no democracy.

“We become rich or poor — no middle class,” Torres said. “And the poor always gets the short end of the stick.”


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