Inflatable rat at tollway HQ brings home state's political divide

  • "Scabby" the inflatable rat belongs to the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150. He's hanging out at the Illinois tollway after the board hired a nonunion landscaping company.

    "Scabby" the inflatable rat belongs to the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150. He's hanging out at the Illinois tollway after the board hired a nonunion landscaping company. Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

Updated 6/6/2016 11:21 AM

A large inflatable rat making itself at home on the Illinois tollway's front lawn may put the agency in the unusual position of protesting itself.

That's because the giant rodent's visit comes courtesy of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, whose president, James Sweeney, is a tollway board director.


Yes, "that's our rat out there," Sweeney said of "Scabby" at a recent meeting. "We invented him."

In April 2015, directors, who are appointed by the governor, voted 6-3 to rescind a 1994 policy requiring contractors to hire unions in exchange for guarantees of no strikes or walkouts. Excising the multi-project labor agreement reflected the influence of Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has sought to curtail the power of public-sector unions by limiting collective bargaining and workers' compensation.

At the time, a Rauner spokesman said the policy would save money. Sweeney and two other directors, however, warned strikes could delay the tollway's road-building program and put unskilled laborers on complex projects.

Sweeney noted that tollway construction continued during a 2010 strike because the labor agreement required workers to cross picket lines.

In November, the board hired Yorkville-based Semper Fi Yard Service to landscape Route 390 between Route 20 and Route 53 for $1.3 million. It was the lowest bid of four offers, with others ranging from $1.6 million to $1.9 million. Semper Fi does not use union labor.

"My contractors and my (union) members who work for them want a level playing field when they bid, and you don't have that when you bid nonunion against union," Sweeney said May 26.

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Tollway Executive Director Greg Bedalov is unfazed by the rat, saying the union is "exercising their First Amendment right to free speech."

"The tollway does not have a (multi) project labor agreement any more," he added. "I just checked in with the project manager, and apparently they're (Semper Fi) doing a fantastic job. They still have to pay prevailing wage; they just don't have to use union labor."

Semper Fi owner Roberto Velazquez, a Marine Corps veteran who served in the Iraq War, said "the tollway made a decision to hire us based on our qualifications and price. The tollway is one of the few government entities with veteran (hiring) goals. To be out there on Memorial Day weekend protesting someone who served the country for us ... it's disappointing."

"Scabby" allowed himself to be photographed but declined an interview.

"It's not a picket, it's information," Sweeney noted. "We're letting the public know what they're doing."


Your voice

Last week's column about express toll lanes proposed for I-55 got Eugene Luzwick of Wheeling thinking. "Although I have not been out to California in a couple of years, I have seen many free carpool lanes in the inner lane on many expressways," he wrote. "I have never seen any express toll lanes in the Los Angeles/San Diego area. How about building the lanes and using them for transit such as trains? We can't keep adding more concrete. It just adds more and more cars to our roadways."

Annette Swoger of Streamwood is underwhelmed by the tollway spending up to $50 million for a feasibility study of extending Route 53 north. "What is wrong with you people? Have you no soul?" she asked. "You really think it's OK to spend $50 million on yet another feasibility study to somehow try to sneak in that stinking highway through Lake County that no one wants?"

And Frank Erite of Bartlett promises to boycott the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway/Route 390 when tolls begin in July between Lake Street and I-290. "I find the Elgin-O'Hare to be a main thoroughfare for myself even though it is called the highway to nowhere. But I will be one of the people who will refuse to pay a toll to drive seven miles," Erite said. "I will use alternate routes like Lake Street and Barrington Road. I find it all to be a big scam and a big shame, but, hey, welcome to America."

Got an opinion on inflatable rats, tolls or Route 53? Drop me an email at

Gridlock alert

• Ouch. If you can, avoid northbound Route 83 in Bensenville today. IDOT is repairing pavement between Grove Avenue and Irving Park Road from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., which means lane closures.

• Lake Countians should plan alternate routes with closures on Route 60 between Belvidere Road and Wilson Road starting June 20 so IDOT can repair a drainage structure.

Train lovers should check out the Franklin Park Fest's Railroad Day on Saturday.
Train lovers should check out the Franklin Park Fest's Railroad Day on Saturday. -
Travel back in time

Rail fans of all ages can get up close to some rare trains Saturday at the Franklin Park Fest's Railroad Day. Trains featured from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. include a restored Fort Wayne Railroad steam locomotive, historical Canadian National Railroad parlor car and Amtrak superliners, plus mini-train rides for kids. Admission is free; for info, go to

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