Eleven inflatable rats (each nicknamed “Scabby”). Two inflatable fat cats. A truck with a sound system and an electronic sign. And about three dozen members of various unions in the building trades.

All lined Sherman Avenue near Church Street Thursday morning, calling on Evanston to enact a Responsible Bidder Ordinance (RBO) for contracts involving public money.

John Gallagher, an organizer with Iron Workers Local 1, said such an ordinance would “support workers’ rights” by making sure they are properly trained and get fair wages and benefits.

While an RBO would not mandate union employees, some of the terms, such as requiring apprenticeship training programs, proof of certificates of insurance and other criteria are more likely to be used by contractors who hire union labor.

Robert Piane, of Carpenters Local 58, said an RBO helps ensure that a project will not automatically go to the lowest bidder, which, he said, could end up costing taxpayers more in the long run.

“When you have the lowest bidder, you can get some shady contractors” who do shoddy work, Piane said.

As an example, Piane mentioned the fountain at Fountain Square, which has been shut off for a couple of years due to problems with the installation.

“It’s a lot harder to go in and fix something that was screwed up,” Piane said, “rather than doing it right in the first place.”

(The winning bid on the Fountain Square project, from Copenhaver Construction, at $5.4 million was about 4% lower than the only other bid received. But an industry directory indicates that Copenhaver is a union firm.)

A report from the union-backed Illinois Economic Policy Institute claims that “responsible bidder ordinances deliver value on taxpayer funded projects,” and serve as “protection plans for taxpayers.”

The study, which examined projects in Illinois and Indiana, concluded that RBOs do not mean a more expensive project, saying “responsible bidder ordinances are effective policies that uphold local construction standards without raising costs for taxpayers.”

The Thursday demonstration was near a project that has seen union protests before, the renovation of the old Varsity Theater building.

However, organizers of this latest event said they chose the Sherman site for its high downtown visibility and available parking, and not because of the Varsity.

While the theater renovation (into residences) is using non-union workers, no public money is involved, therefore an RBO would not apply.

Illinois communities with responsible bidder ordinances include Elgin, Joliet and Rock Island.

Evanston already has a Local Employment Program (LEP) ordinance, which requires that Evanston residents make up 15% of laborers and construction trades employees on a city-funded project, where the project’s cost is $250,000 or higher. Developers can ask for a waiver.

Jeremy Esparza, business agent for Laborers International Union, Local 1, said a Responsible Bidder ordinance “furthers the ideals” of the LEP, by helping to put more Evanstonians into good paying jobs.

Evanston Now has requests in to several city council members and to Mayor Daniel Biss to see if an RBO might be considered in the near future.

You may have seen a “Scabby the Rat” at various union demonstrations in the past.

The idea of a large, inflatable rat dates to 1989 and the Joliet-based Local 150 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

The name “Scabby” came out of a “name the rat” contest.

While the inflatable rat is not that old a concept, the phrase “scab” goes back to the early days of unions, and applied to strikebreakers who would cross a picket line, or sometimes just to non-union labor in general.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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