While labor disputes often result in litigation, rarely, if ever before, has the ubiquitous rat itself become the subject of a lawsuit.
Employers are all aware of the rat. Unions often inflate a balloon type rat to stir emotion against an employer and to signify to the passing public that workers are embroiled in a labor dispute with a particular employer in hopes that the employer will feel pressured to capitulate to the union’s demands in order to avoid general association with the generally disliked rat. Simple concept. Some employers dread its appearance; some dig their heels in further when they see it.
In Grand Chute, Wisconsin, a town outside of Appleton, the rat itself became the subject of an ordinance violation. The union, feeling frustrated with the course of labor relations, inflated a 12-foot balloon rat in protest of the company, tethering the rate to the ground with stakes. It turns out that the rat was on the public way and violated the municipality’s sign ordinance which prohibited signs which are secured to the ground on the public way because they not only present a hazard but can create a disturbance to passersby. The police issued an ordinance violation to the rat (really to the union) and ordered its removal.
Nearly five years of litigation ensued over whether the union had the right to keep the rat in its location. While the municipality argued that the rat was being treated as any other sign and was subject to the sign ordinance, the union argued that the rat was an expression of free speech. Last week the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the municipality’s ordinance.
The court noted that “a municipality is entitled to implement a nondiscriminatory ban of all private signs from the public roads and rights-of-way” but that “even a neutral ordinance can violate the First Amendment if it is enforced selectively, permitting messages of which [the Town] approves while enforcing the ordinance against unions and other unpopular speakers.” The court concluded that there was no evidence before it to show that the sign ordinance was enforced selectively, and therefore ruled against the union.
Employers should note that if vexed with an appearance of the rat, do not ignore the simple solution of investigating whether its location violates local ordinances.