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Scabby the Rat Visits His AD

An inflatable rat in front of a Rolex property in New York City, source: Google Maps.
While following up on a recent Instagram post, I spent some time reviewing properties owned by Rolex in the New York City metropolitan area. One property, in particular, caught my interest because it seemed to be "off the beaten track." In order to learn more about it, I used street view in Google Maps to access some pictures of the building. As I virtually strolled down the middle of the street, I approached the building's main entrance. Surprise doesn't even begin to describe my reaction when I saw an inflatible rat positioned on the sidewalk facing the door.

This thing was big, maybe 12 feet tall. A carnival-esque rodent was the last thing I expected to see near the entrance to a Rolex building. There were three people standing nearby, one wearing something like a construction hat. Having seen a number of labor-related demonstrations in the recent past, my gut told me this may explain the street view picture. Then, I started asking myself which employee union would set up a demonstration like this. I didn't think it was likely that Rolex employees would engage in this kind of public demonstration. The organization has rightly earned a reputation for cautious inscruitability.

Two inflatable rats in front of a Rolex Authorized Dealer in New York City, source: Reddit user five_now_dog_five.
After a little more digging, I found that this was not the only Rolex location visited by billowing rodentia, figures that are sometimes called "Scabby the Rat." On July 12, 2022, in the "nyc" subReddit, user five_now_dog_five posted a photo taken outside the relatively new Rolex boutique in the Meatpacking district. There, not one but two inflated rats were positioned on the sidewalk. One faced the entrance and the second faced a display window. The plot had definitely thickened.

A Facebook post by Laborers' Local 79 showing a "die-in" by apprentices.
Soon after reviewing the Reddit thread, I found the origin of these blow-up sidewalk spectacles: Construction and General Building Laborers’ Local 79. This union represents various construction trades in the five boroughs of New York City. On Facebook, they shared a number of posts regarding demonstrations they'd made at a Rolex property beginning in late July, 2022, including a "theater action" die-in carried out by apprentices. On Twitter, the account local79nyc shared graphics of two slogans reading "Time is up! It is time to do the right thing, Rolex!" and "Worker dignity is not a luxury! Shame on Rolex for allowing the exploitation of construction workers at their new Manhattan headquarters!"

This last slogan pointed toward an explanation for the demonstrations.
A Facebook post by Laborers' Local 79, Scabby making a rather choice hand gesture.
Demolition is presently underway at 665 Fifth Avenue, which is the address of Rolex's 12 story Manhattan headquarters. The brand is building a new headquarters that will scale to 25 (or perhaps 28) stories. Demolition and construction of such buildings is a daunting enterprise typically involving multiple parties such as an architect, engineers, a general contractor and subcontractors. It is likely that Laborer's Local 79 was demonstrating because Rolex's general contractor has hired "open shop," or non-union, subcontractors to work on the building project.

In general, Rolex's modern approach to corporate responsibility is commendable. The brand sponsors various arts enterprises. Luca Bernasconi, President and CEO of Rolex Watch, USA, has reportedly stated that the new building will be eco-friendly and energy-efficient. The brand's charitable branch funds additional environmental initiatives through its Perpetual Planet program.

For these reasons, reliance on non-unionized labor for construction of Rolex's new headquarters is a bit of an ethical outlier. Unions, and organized labor, are not presently very common in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, in 2021, only 10.3% of the workforce was unionized in America. From this perspective, Rolex's reliance on non-unionized construction workers is basically consistent with most American business practice.

However, the tides are presently turning. Gallup reports that unions are at their most popular level in the United States since 1965. There is also a serious ethical question regarding how multinational organizations approach their foreign subsidiaries. One philosophy is "when in Rome, do as the Romans do," which would suggest non-unionized labor on the New York project is reasonable. An alternative approach would be a sort of "golden rule" in which a business would "do to others as it would have done unto itself." From this perspective, the fact that an estimated 75% of the watchmaker workforce is unionized in Switzerland suggests that Rolex should be more disposed towards unionized workers on its construction project in the United States.

There are important upsides to using organized labor on a New York City construction project. This type of work is dangerous. Convincing empirical evidence suggests that when there are unionized workers on a construction site, that site is safer. This is not a purely theoretical question. Since March, 2022, the New York City Department of Buildings reports that the Construction Safety Enforcement Inspection Unit has delivered $37,500 in penalties from construction violations at 665 Fifth Avenue. The NYC Department of Buildings also reports one worker on the project was injured from a piece of debris while a second sustained a burn injury. It may very well be the case that, even after accounting for these costs, Rolex has reduced its expenses by using non-unionized labor on the construction site. However, this is the kind of detached, money-driven accounting we more usually expect of profit-oriented enterprises. Rolex is famously owned by a charitable trust, suggesting that unsympathetic bottom-linery is not really necessary.

I've reached out to both Rolex and Local Laborers' 79 in order to learn about their more recent perspectives. They haven't had much time to respond, but if I do learn anything from either I will share more here. I'd like to wrap up this post on a lighter note. As is often the case on Reddit, the thread describing Scabby's trip to the Meatpacking AD contained a fairly humorous take offered by user dbetts77. They wrote, "pretty sure both rats will get a Batman before I do."

My book on the history of Rolex marketing is now available on Amazon! It debuted as the #1 New Release in its category. You can find it here.

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