LABOR OF LOVE

One of the longest running picket lines in the history of the local labor movement

greets motorists and passersby on 45th Street and Chicago Avenue at Ray Welter Heating and Air Conditioning. It has been about four-and-a-half years since Ray's son, Nick, reneged on his contracted workers, and during the entire four years, the Sheet Metal Workers Local 10 has maintained a protest at varying levels of intensity.

The current level is moderate to friendly, thanks to Dennis Prestemon's low-key style. For the past two years Prestemon has represented Local 10 on Chicago Avenue, and since his partner died in October, he has done so alone. On a recent visit to picket headquarters--Prestemon's station wagon--we found the picket line snoozing, a sleeping giant with the driver's seat in recline while snow sifted down over the windshield. After we tapped several times on the glass, and wondered briefly if hard feelings would prevent the employees at Welter from calling an ambulance for their lone protester, we were relieved when Prestemon opened his eyes and sat up.

Once the alarming cast of sleepy gray in Prestemon's face was supplanted with glowing pink, he turned out to be every inch a union man. A burly 58-year-old with shirt unbuttoned far enough to reveal a severe triple-bypass scar, ("It's clogging up again," he grumbles waving his hand toward his heart), he is a recent widower, and he whiles away the hours on the picket line with a book on black-jack strategy.

The trouble at Welter's as Prestemon tells it stems back to a letter Nick Welter left on the men's benches demanding that employees take a $4-an-hour paycut. "It was addressed 'Dear Cocksuckers,'" Prestemon says, "and it went downhill from there." Welter had been union for as long as anyone could remember, and between the letter and the paycut, most of the employees walked. "In the beginning," Prestemon recalls, "tempers really flared." Strikers glued the locks shut, cut the chains on the fence of Welter's yard, punctured tires on Nick Welter's car. His sister, who helps out with the business, was confronted by a striker while she drove into the parking lot one day. "To this day she still parks in the bank parking lot and walks half a block to work," Prestemon says. Even Ray Welter joined the picket line, Prestemon chuckles. "He was walking around saying, 'Geez, he's my son. What do you want me to do?'"

But all the pressure the union could bring to bear on Nick Welter was for naught (not even Dad could prevail upon his son to make up with the union). The contract was dead, the union busted, and both sides entrenched. The rough and ready boys found other jobs and mild-mannered Prestemon took their place. The few trucks who honor the picket are replaced with non-union drivers, and Welter finds its business in the union-unfriendly suburbs. A sense of routine has settled in.

For Prestemon, the routine includes lunch at the diner up the street, office visits to the dentist and the chiropractor near Welter's. He'll shoot bull with the proprietors at the deli next door, and argue politics at the gunshop down the block (but gently--"you don't want things to get too heated with all those guns around.") Last year he even played Santa for the kids at the park up the street. "I'm sort of a south Chicago Avenue resident by proxy," Prestemon says.

Which isn't to say it doesn't get dispiriting watching business as usual at Ray Welter Heating and Air Conditioning. When that happens, Prestemon stands out on the street side and waves his sign at the oncoming traffic. At first, his signs encouraged motorists to honk in support of the labor movement, but neighbors complained about the 18-wheelers' air horns at 6 a.m. The cars still honk, and it lifts Prestemon's spirits every time. "You get your share of young guys flipping you off through the sunroof, shouting 'get a job,'" he admits, but he tries to let it roll off his back. For one thing, he's doing his job--he's on disability since the bypass, and the union pays him 400 bucks a week to maintain the picket. For another, he's sure to get more honkers than hecklers. His supporters are usually women and minorities, he says, other members of the oppressed classes, which "shouldn't be any surprise to anyone." Considering unemployment, underemployment, and the new three-income family, NAFTA, and the slow, steady decline of the power of the laboring classes, Prestemon feels pretty lucky overall, even though Welter's still in business. "We just enjoy whatever support we get."

--Joseph Hart

PUBLICDOMAIN

You're at a holiday party, a highball sweating in one paw, and someone comes over to chat you up. "What do you do for a living," asks the party-goer, and together you re-enact the chit-chat of holiday parties everywhere. But what if good taste legislates against your answer? What if, for example, the answer is: "I spray hairspray in the eyes of rabbits and record whether they go blind?" University of Minnesota veterinarian Wendy Wagner has the answer. At a recent lecture, reports the U's Research Review, Wagner offered CONVERSATION STARTERS for people who perform research on laboratory animals. The following are excerpts from her speech.

"They've seen 60 Minutes or an episode of 20/20, and they say things like 'I've heard you shoot monkeys.' Those are the ones who make me sarcastic, and I have to watch it. They make the majority of us really defensive. But these are people who can be converted. They're basically clever, intelligent people; they just don't know anything about your area. If you're willing to educate them, they'll become allies.

The biggest problem we run into when we talk about our jobs in
animal research is that we tend to defend our positions as if they were shameful. But look at the big picture, at what your work leads to. If you are unable to summon up pride before you talk to someone, then you are in the wrong job. And the animals deserve better.

That doesn't mean you can't have doubt and bad days. I remember euthanizing a rat colony once; almost a hundred rats in just an hour. I was depressed. But overall, I'm intensely proud of what I do.

I for one am really happy to know that if I cry and mascara gets in my eyes, I'm not going to go blind. When I was in high school I had awful acne--open-wounds-on-face kind of acne, and I slathered anything on there that might work. I am way happy now to know that I was safe at the time, and that those years of putting things on open wounds is not going to affect me in the long run.

Sometimes, probably at night, with a cat sitting on my lap--which I love dearly--sometimes it will really hit hard. You can't argue against it."

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