Clad in orange T-shirts and hard hats, dozens of workers from Construction and General Building Laborers’ Local 79 rallied in front of Federal Hall’s steps June 27 to protest what they said is the Trump Administration’s efforts to stymie unions’ free-speech rights by inhibiting the display of one of their most powerful symbols: the inflatable rat.

The union and its lawyers are battling the National Labor Relations Board in Federal court after the owner of a ShopRite store being built in Staten Island, Kevin Mannix, filed a complaint with the agency when the site was picketed by Local 79 because the construction company was using non-union crews. 

‘We’re Going to Fight’

The store’s complaint claims that the local’s actions are illegal since the union can have no beef with ShopRite’s owners because they are not the construction workers’ direct employers.

But speakers at the rally said that the NLRB’s General Counsel, Peter Robb, and, by extension, the Trump Administration are using the conflict as a proxy battle in a bid to sabotage the labor movement. They denounced both the store’s owner and the government’s efforts, and pledged to not back down.

“The people that are building that ShopRite in Staten Island, we know they’re responsible for the irresponsible,” Mike Hellstrom, Assistant Business Manager of the Local 79-affiliated Mason Tenders District Council, bellowed into cavernous Wall St. “We’re going to blow up rats, we’re going to protest, we’re going hand out flyers, we’re going to make sure they know...if it’s a fight that they want about trying to silence us, it’s a f------ fight that they get.”

Bernard Callegari, an organizer with the local, suggested that physical confrontation was an option. “I don’t know about you, but you’re not going to shut me up,” he said. “When the law fails, we’re going to fight.”

Loudly, Without Stick

He said that, unlike decades ago, union protests these days were loud but generally peaceful. “We just show up” to protest sites when directed by organizers, he said. “Maybe they want us to take it back to what it used to be.”

Tamir Rosenblum, the attorney representing the local, told the rally’s attendees that although their rights to picket the site have for now been preserved by a Federal judge, the conflict is likely to endure.

The union’s best weapon, he said, “is our collective voices. They need to know, they need to know that they cannot shut us up.”

Mr. Rosenblum said that while the current court fight with NLRB lawyers is ostensibly about organized labor’s right to picket, it also is representative of a government effort to suppress discussion about all sorts of issues, including environmental rights, gay rights and the rights of communities of color.

“If they can tell us what our words mean...what do we got?” he asked.

The store’s complaint alleges Local 79 “engaged in picketing, including blocking the sidewalk, using bullhorns to amplify shouting, distributing handbills, chanting, and blowing whistles” to draw attention to its dispute with the construction company and with the owner of the lease. The local also erected an inflatable cockroach and an inflatable rat at the site.

Fat Cat ‘Intimidating’

The union’s action has persuaded workers at the other stores “to refuse to handle goods or perform services and threatened, restrained and coerced” Mr. Mannix and others, the complaint said.

In a memo issued late last year by the NLRB’s Office of the General Counsel with regard to a secondary boycott in Chicago, an inflatable “fat cat” clutching a worker by the neck was characterized as an “intimidating” figure that “created a symbolic, confrontational barrier.” As such, the memo continued, the union’s aim was not to ally the public to its cause “in a non-confrontational manner...but rather sought to dissuade anyone from entering the site through intimidation and coercion.”

It argued that the action violated a National Labor Relations Act provision that prohibits conduct that forces or otherwise requires "any employer or self-employed person to join any labor or employer organization." 

The Chicago case, the memo continued, could necessitate an NLRB argument that the union’s action was not deserving of full First Amendment protections.

“The Government has a heightened interest in regulating labor speech because of its direct effect on interstate commerce,” the memo said.


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