It was a typical morning in Philadelphia. Clusters of tourists took selfies in front of Independence Hall. Others sat on benches reading glossy brochures. But some pedestrians were taken aback by the three towering inflatable rats with bloodshot eyes across the street.
There was no shortage of rats. There were four more around the corner, lining the Public Ledger Building at Sixth and Chestnut Streets on Wednesday morning. Scabby the Rat, commonly used as a mascot for union-rights protests, has become a fixture in Philadelphia, where it is typical to see one inflatable rat on the street. But have you ever seen seven?
About 40 building trade members and organizers have been protesting since Monday against Brooklyn-based Heights Advisors, developers of the Public Ledger Building. Demonstrators were clad in jackets representing unions, including the Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 and the Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers. The demonstrators said they were unsure if there had ever been a larger delegation of Scabby the Rats.
The protesters alleged that Heights Advisors hires nonunion labor, and does not pay workers fair wages and standards.
Heights Advisors has been mired in controversy in Philadelphia since it started redeveloping the former West Philadelphia High School into a 298-unit apartment property in 2016. The company did not respond to requests for comment, and plans for the building were not clear.
In June 2018, the Public Ledger Building’s owners sold the building’s western section to an affiliate of the New York-based Baycrest Properties & Management LLC for $32 million, according to records filed with the city.
Although the inflatable rats were positioned in front of a Wawa location — which is the chain’s largest store — protesters said they do not have an issue with the shop, and they were even buying their coffee from Wawa.
“We don’t want to hurt Wawa," one organizer for the Painters and Allied Trade union said. “Hopefully Wawa calls [the developer] up and says, ‘Why are you doing this?’ ” He declined to give his name out of fear of retaliation from the developers.
A Wawa manager declined to comment on the protest. The corporate office did not respond to a request for comment.
Each Scabby the Rat was brought by an individual union, said another organizer for the Painters and Allied Trade union, who also declined to give his name. The organizers said the building’s prominent location boosted the protest’s size.
In recent years, the Republican-controlled National Labor Relations Board has claimed that unions violate federal labor law with the use of the rat. The board has attempted to ban the inflatable balloon because it claims the rat is too coercive.
Freida Milton, 77, a retired early childhood day-care teacher from Germantown, was on her way to meet a friend when she saw the line of rats. She grew up in the area but had never seen a Scabby before Wednesday morning.
“It’s nasty,” Milton said. Although she thought the rat would disgust tourists, she said she understands the union members’ efforts to garner the attention of building authorities.
“I wish them well,” she said.