A giant inflatable rat is no laughing matter.
A federal lawsuit filed Friday involves an inflatable rat with blazing red eyes and a scabby belly. The monstrous rodent, its mouth a gaping sneer crowded with sharp teeth, rears back on its hind legs and brandishes black claws.
Menasha-based Local 330 of the Construction and General Laborers’ Union is suing the town of Grand Chute after being ordered to deflate the rodent and a companion balloon—a fat cat with a needle-toothed grin strangling a construction worker while flaunting a diamond ring—that police claimed were a traffic hazard. The local had inflated the balloons as part of a protest over a masonry contractor the union claims pays substandard wages.
Greg Peterson, Grand Chute’s chief of police, said he had never seen the rat balloon, a staple at union protests, before the incident with Local 330.
He said he sees the potential for passersby to chuckle at the 15-foot inflated rodent, but the police department did not make light of the situation.
“We didn’t look upon it in that fashion. We didn’t look at it as a humorous situation,” Peterson said. “And I don’t think it was placed with that intent.”
Certainly not, said Nathan Eisenberg, an attorney with Milwaukee-based The Previant Law Firm SC who represents the union.
He said he handles similar cases often, though cities and towns often back away from their opposition to the balloons once he mentions case law and the First Amendment.
The rat is a well-known symbol unions use to allege unfair working conditions, he said, and while some people might react with laughter, that’s not the union’s goal.
“There is something about the giant inflatable rat that genders that response,” he said, “but I think that can’t take away from the seriousness and importance for the union.”
However, the owner of the company Local 330 was protesting, Schiocton-based Pahlow Masonry LLC, said the balloons are wearing thin.
Local 330 protests Pahlow sites a few times a year, said Doug Pahlow, and his workers just try to ignore the display and do their work. He said he has had friends and family, some of whom are union members, tell him the balloons are childish and undermine the message the union is trying to convey.
“You’re putting inflatable toys up along the roadside,” he said.