A staple of union protests in the US, the plastic inflated rodent known as Scabby looks to have met his match in the lucky country. Scabby, a buck-toothed red-eyed rat with putrid body sores, is a constitutionally protected expression of free speech in his homeland. US courts have consistently upheld his right to join workers’ protests.
But in Australia, the delicate sensitivities of employers and scabs are protected by the law. Until recently, Scabby was visiting workers protesting outside Esso’s Longford gas plant in Gippsland over plans to cut their wages by 30 percent. No longer. Scabby received his deflation orders as part of a Federal Court case brought by the company behind the proposed wage cuts. It claims that Scabby, inanimate though he is, is being coercive and unduly pressuring energy giant Exxon Mobil to accede to workers’ demands for decent pay.
The case against Scabby is the most comical example of a serious trend in which basic expressions of union and class consciousness are being banned. In 2014, the High Court ruled that holding a placard calling a strikebreaker a scab was “inappropriate, offensive and humiliating” and a sackable offence. In 2016, in the context of the long-running CUB dispute, the Fair Work Commission went further still, finding that the use of the words “rat” or “dog” at a union protest constituted unlawful intimidation and bullying. More recently, members of the CFMEU are reporting that employers are demanding that they remove “union paraphernalia” – i.e. CFMEU stickers – from their hard hats before they come to work.
These cases build on the already suffocating legal restrictions placed on workers’ right to take effective industrial action. Under threat if this trend continues is the right even to talk union, argue for solidarity and apply whatever moral or social pressure you can to win other workers to your side. This is how workers have always organised and won. And it’s these traditions that the bosses want to degrade. The claims against Scabby show only the ludicrous lengths to which they will go to do so.
In Gippsland, workers remain determined. Though Scabby has moved on, he has quickly been replaced with a larger friend, a cigar-smoking inflatable feline called Greedy the Fat Cat. It’s not yet known if Greedy will be joined as a party to the proceedings against Scabby. It is understood the company is reviewing the footage of Greedy’s inflation before making the call.