COVID-19 Survivor and Local 49 Member Dick Kryzer Shares His Story

COVID-19 Survivor and Local 49 Member Dick Kryzer Shares His Story

On March 17, Dick Kryzer, a 12-year Local 49 member and plant operator for MET Council, experienced the first symptoms of what would later be confirmed as COVID-19.

Kryzer is a plant operator at a wastewater treatment plant and is responsible for cleaning water so that it can be re-used. This requires efficiently treating the wastewater, performing tests, and sending samples to multiple labs to ensure that the water meets Minnesota pollution control requirements before it is then released back into the Mississippi River.

“There are only four of us that run the plant, and on the weekends, only one of us operates the plant, so it’s a shared responsibility between all of us,” Kryzer said.

Kryzer said it was during one of those weekend shifts where he started to feel the beginning symptoms of what would be diagnosed as COVID-19.

“On that Saturday, when I was scheduled to work, I just felt terrible and experienced aches, pains, and a headache, so I finished my shift and went home. By 11:00 that night, I had a fever of 103 degrees, and I had to have someone cover for me on my Sunday shift so that no other employee would get sick,” Kryzer said.

Kryzer stated that after experiencing those symptoms for longer than three days, he called his primary care doctor to attempt to be seen.

“I was first told that I shouldn’t come into the hospital as I didn’t have enough symptoms, but just a few days later is when I started to develop the cough, so that’s when I went into a special COVID-19 clinic,” Kryzer said.

Kryzer was then tested for both strains of Influenza as well as a strep throat test – which all came back as negative.

“I was told that I probably did have COVID-19, but at that point in time they were only testing medical professionals, so I was told to return home, treat my symptoms, and quarantine,” he said.

A few days after he returned home, Kryzer’s symptoms took a turn for the worse.

“I remember it was the night of March 29, and I couldn’t breathe at all. My wife called the ambulance, and I was taken to the emergency room where I was started on oxygen,” he said.

It was that night, 12 days after he first started showing symptoms, that Kryzer received his COVID-19 test and tested positive.

“I was in intensive care for five days, so in total, I spent about a week in the hospital before I started to feel better,” he said.

Kryzer said that while dealing with the symptoms was extremely hard. It was even more difficult to go through it alone.

“I am very grateful to the nurses and doctors that helped me. They were all wonderful but other than seeing them; you’re in isolation. Your family can’t come and see you, and that was heartbreaking for them and for me,” he said. “Though I am glad that no one else got sick.”

None of Kryzer’s family or co-workers reported symptoms during the time that he was sick.

“At work, there’s only four of us that run that plant, and every plant is different, so it’s not like my employer could call someone from another plant to fill in,” Kryzer said.

After Kryzer and his family were completed with their quarantine, the Minnesota Health Department cleared Kryzer to return to work.

“The MET Council was very supportive throughout the whole process, and even now we have all the personal protective equipment that we need, they sanitize daily, and everyone practices social distancing,” Kryzer said.

As an essential worker, it was critical for Kryzer to return to work as soon as he was able to. Many Local 49 members are considered an essential worker, and Kryzer is just one of many examples of how Local 49 members are a vital part of our society.

From ensuring that there is clean water to making sure that our roads and bridges are safe to commute on, Local 49 members are an essential part of ensuring that we remain a functioning and safe society.

For more member stories visit


May 12, 2020

Local 49 Member Spotlight: Charlene Becker

Local 49 Member Spotlight: Charlene Becker

While Charlene Becker has only been a Local 49 member for less than a year, she already has made a name for herself in the lowboy driver industry by becoming the first female lowboy driver in Ziegler CAT’s 106-year history.

“It’s a pretty big crown to wear, but I think I wear it well,” Becker said.

Becker currently works at the Columbus/Hugo Ziegler location, but before her time there, she has been around the trucking industry her whole life.

“I always knew that this what I’ve wanted to do in life. I’ve been around the trucking industry, and I was always in a pit somewhere,” Becker said. “I started my first job in the industry at 27, where I ran a dump truck, and since then, I’ve done pretty much every job you can do in trucking.”

After five years of working in the trucking industry, she now operates Ziegler’s largest trailer.

“I run what’s called a seven-axel lowboy, which can hold up to 136,000 pounds,” she said.

Not only does Becker run the largest rig that Ziegler has, but she also is the only female lowboy driver in the state of Minnesota to call in her own permits.

“When I haul oversize loads, whether it be wide, heavy, or tall, I have to call into the state to get a permit and let them know the route I am going. If I am on a route (for example) where the road isn’t big enough or maybe there’s a bridge that’s too low, the state needs to re-route me,” Becker explained.

“There’s a small staff in the permit office, and they’ve told me that I am the only woman in the state of Minnesota that’s a lowboy driver to call in their own permits, and I’m pretty proud of that,” she added.

While Becker says that she loves her job, she noted that it’s a lot of responsibility, and there are more things that a lowboy driver needs to take into account compared to others in the trucking industry.

“First and foremost, I have to be extremely safety conscious. For example,  sometimes I am sent down to residential areas where cars can barely fit in so I have to be aware of traffic all around me. I also have to make sure everything is secured and safe before I even get on the road,” she said.

“It’s also very hard work, and it isn’t like other trucking jobs where you stay in your rig all day. I easily put on 10,000 – 20,000 steps a day. My freight is 100 percent mine. I load it, chain it down, and unchain it. I don’t have someone else do it for me,” Becker added.

Becker encourages more women to start a career in the industry and says, “don’t let anyone intimidate you.”

“I’ve been told many things to try and keep me away from doing what I want to do, but I held my head high, and I knew I wanted to make this a career for myself, so I did. I do what I want, and no one is going to stop me, and it shouldn’t stop you either. Do what you feel is right for yourself,” she said.

For more stories like Charlene’s visit


April 27, 2020

Switching from Non-Union to Union Has Changed This New Local 49 Member’s Life

Switching from Non-Union to Union Has Changed This New Local 49 Member’s Life

Damien Dimberio worked most of his career as a non-union heavy equipment operator until one day he took a leap of faith and joined Local 49 – with a little help from his new business agent. He now says, “joining Local 49 has completely changed my life, and I can’t ever see working non-union again.”

Dimberio was born in Virginia, Minnesota and grew up with his dad working in the mines and was around the industry is whole life. He originally got into the construction business after a few friends started their own company, and he began to work for them.

“It was mostly a home remodeling company, and I did some roof work until one day they just threw me on a piece of equipment, and I hit the ground running from there,” Dimberio said.

Dimberio started operating forklifts and eventually worked his way to operating potain cranes. Dimberio spent most of his career as a non-union crane operator until one day, the Local 49 Northwest Metro Area Business Agent, Nate Sogge, stopped by his job site.

“God bless Nate for driving past the job site I was working at. It’s hard for me to think about not working union because of the great things that they provide with the benefits and health insurance…It’s huge for me,” he said.

While Dimberio is grateful that he’s a member now, he says at first, he was a little skeptical.

“Honestly, it just sounded too good to be true, and I didn’t know whether or not to believe him, but Nate kept talking to me and even pointed me in the direction of more people to talk to, and by that point, it was a no brainer to join,” he said.

Dimberio is coming up on his first full year of being a member of Local 49 and is currently working for Carpentry Builders Inc., operating a potain crane.

“Right now, we’re working on the Park Seven project in downtown Minneapolis. We do commercial wood framing, and we pretty much work all year round. My job is kind of like working with one big puzzle and putting all the pieces together. All of the materials from the truck to the building get moved by me,” Dimberio said.

Dimberio said that he even notices a difference in working on an all-union job sites versus non-union.

“You can tell that they care more about their jobs, and I think it’s because when you give people things that help them provide for their family, it makes you care that much more,” he said.

His advice to other non-union workers who are skeptical about making the switch is, “take the leap of faith.”

“There’s no one else that’s going to provide you a future beyond just working day to day and provide a future for your family,” he said.

For more stories like Damien’s visit


January 10, 2020

Fourth Generation Local 49 Member Continues Legacy

Fourth Generation Local 49 Member Continues Legacy

“Try and better yourself one percent a day, and by the end of the month you’ll be 30 percent better than when you started.”

That’s the advice Dillon Talberg, a fourth-generation Local 49 member from Gilman, Minnesota, says has inspired him to remain successful throughout his six years being a member.

Talberg said his interest in working in the construction industry began when he was four years old going on the job site with his father.

“My dad was a crusher operator and would take me out to the job site all the time. So, after I graduated from high school, I knew that I wanted to be in construction,” Talberg said.

While Talberg found a job within the industry out of high school, he knew that he needed more experience to make it further.

“I attended Central Lakes College for their 13-month heavy equipment program, but after graduating, I spoke with an instructor at the Local 49 Training Center who gave me more information about joining the union,” Talberg said.

Talberg officially became a Local 49 member when he landed a job with Minnesota Utilities and Excavating where he worked primarily on highway heavy jobs.

While Talberg started working in highway heavy, he quickly learned that wasn’t his true passion.

“I completed pipeline training at the Local 49 Training Center and eventually got into doing some directional drilling, and I just fell in love with it,” he said.

“I was fortunate because my uncle got me on the Dakota Access Pipeline Access job, which was a huge opportunity for me,” Talberg added.

Working on the Dakota Access Pipeline project not only taught him so much about the industry but about the comradery that being a Local 49 member brings.

“There were more than 100 years of experience on that crew altogether. They taught me to learn anything and everything I can, pay attention to my surroundings, and that if I can’t make it out here, I can’t stay. That just gave me the motivation to try harder and do my best every single day, Talberg said.”

The Dakota Access Pipeline project isn’t the only high-profile job Talberg has been a part of. He has worked on pipeline projects stretching from Sacramento, California to Washington, DC.

“It’s cool traveling to new places, meeting new people that come from a different lifestyle and truly making good friends,” Talberg said.

Talberg added the pace and frequency of the work are what drew him toward working on pipelines.

“Whether it’s snowing, raining, or sunny, we’re still working. I figure I’ll spend my twenties and thirties busting my butt now and accomplish everything I can,” he said.

Becoming a Local 49 member is something that Talberg says he is immensely proud of and he hopes the legacy will continue.

“My family is very supportive of me and impressed with everything that I have accomplished since leaving high school. I’m proud to be a 49er, and I hope one day if I have kids that they’ll decide to join,” Talberg said.

For more stories like Dillon’s visit

September 17, 2019

All in the Family: Mother, Father and Daughter all Local 49 Members

All in the Family: Mother, Father and Daughter all Local 49 Members

Being a Local 49 member has been a family business for Holly Brannen and her parents. Daughter Holly Brannen is a brand-new member of Local 49 who followed in both her parent’s footsteps. Holly’s father, Eric, has been a member for 17 years and her mother Janice has been a member for three years. The family is so close that Holly and her mother work for the same contractor – Allied Blacktop Co.

Holly says that both she and her mother got the idea of going into the construction industry from her father.

“Everything dad’s done, my mom has done and now so have I,” Holly said. “He always talked about the benefits of being a Local 49 member with the pension and health care, and I was interested in having that kind of security for myself.”

Eric Anderson has been in construction all his life, starting with his time in the Army.

“I started out operating equipment in the Army and then when I got out, I transitioned into owning my own concrete company for a while,” Eric said.

Eric then ended up working for McCrossan Construction Company on the I-35W project, and now he currently works for S.M.Hentges & Sons Inc. as a boom truck operator.

Holly’s mother Janice Anderson previously was a truck driver and drove all over the country, during this time she also gained some experience operating a skid steer which is what led her to land a position with Allied.

“I always heard Eric talk about how well Local 49 treated him. He never had a bad thing to say about the union especially with the great health insurance and the pension,” Janice said. “Because of that I kept trying to find union work and I just happened upon Allied. They hired me on right away because of my experience with the skid steer.”

While she’s mainly operated small equipment, Janice plans on expanding her skills.

“I want to learn how to operate more equipment because the more versatile I am, the more helpful I can be to my company,” she added.

As far as working at the same company with her daughter, Janice says it’s been a fun experience.

“My daughter is the spitting image of me, and she likes working with equipment. I think that is just so awesome and we work well together so it’s never been an issue,” Janice said.

Holly says she also enjoys working with her mother.

“My mom is the kind of person that makes everyone her kid anyways, and everyone on the crew refers to her as some kind of mother figure, so it’s reassuring working with her,” Holly said.

Holly currently operates small equipment for Allied, but her goal is to become a crane operator eventually. Holly plans on entering the crane apprenticeship program at the Local 49 Training Center.

“I’m just so excited, and I can’t wait to grow in this career. Right now, I’ve completed one small equipment course at the Training Center, but I eventually want to enter the crane apprenticeship program and become a crane operator,” Holly said. “I like the idea of being able to travel all over the country.”

Both Eric and Janice say that they are incredibly proud of their daughter and her career path.

“Holly has a lot of potential, and she has a chance of making a decent living and creating a bright future for herself. I’m happy she has that chance,” Eric said.

“I support whatever makes her happy and I know that she’s happy being a Local 49 member with her pension and great health care…Local 49 is awesome,” Janice said.

For more stories like Holly’s visit

June 11, 2019

Member Story: Second Generation Crane Operator James Halle. Jr.

Member Story: Second Generation Crane Operator James Halle. Jr.

Second generation Local 49 member, James Halle Jr. from New Hope, Minnesota, began his training as a crane operator learning from the best – his father. Halle’s father was a member of Local 49 and a crane operator for 40 years.

“My dad would take me to job sites on weekends, and I was always around cranes so getting into the industry was a natural transition for me,” Halle said.

Halle didn’t always think he would be a crane operator. After graduating high school he went to college to study law enforcement, but quickly realized he belonged back in the seat.

James Halle Jr. Operating on the Washington Ave. Project in Minneapolis

“I always had the natural skill of a crane operator, and I knew a lot of the people in the industry,” he said. “I bounced around a couple companies in my younger years, and built up my own name separate from my dad.”

“A lot of people had high expectations of me to produce good work right off the bat because of my dad,” he added.

Now with 22 years of experience as a crane operator, Halle has worked on major projects such as the Xcel Energy Center, the DECK Center in Duluth, Target Field, and U.S. Bank Stadium.

“I actually got to work with my dad when they were building the Xcel Energy Center so that was a great experience that I’ll never forget,” he said.

Halle said he loves being able to drive anywhere in Minnesota and knowing that he helped build such monumental structures.

“It’s nice to be able to tell my twin boys, ‘Hey look I worked here, and they get see these huge structures that I was a part of creating,” he said.

Halle also has experience on other type of projects and operating different types of cranes. Working for Northwest Tower Crane he was a part of many structural steel jobs such as the new Target office operating a crawler crane and has worked on projects operating a hydro crane. He also has traveled throughout North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa on several wind turbine projects.

“Working on wind towers can be difficult because sometimes you’re getting into these older friction cranes, and you don’t have electronics to tell you how close you are so you have to do the work by feel,” Halle explained. “Your job is also based on how windy it is, because if it’s too windy you can’t work.

Halle continued to explain that with hydro crane you have to be gentle with it because they can move quick, and are slightly more touchy than other types of cranes.

Halle is currently working on the Washington Avenue project in Minneapolis for Frana Companies operating a tower crane. He said that operating a tower crane is a completely different animal.

“I’m taking everything I’ve learned for the past 20 years and pushing it to the side, because sitting in a crane 100 feet off the ground swaying back and forth is so different, but I love it,” he said. “Some days you can be busy all day long and other days you’re just sitting there.”

“You’re also the main crane on the job and you have other trades calling on you,” Halle added. “Tower crane operators are the first ones on the job site, because you have to climb up early in the morning and you’re the last one on the job.”

Halle said that the key to being a crane operator is to never stop learning, and to always pass the knowledge on.

“When I have an oiler that’s new I like teaching them, and until they get in the seat and run the crane they’re not going to learn,” he said. “Pass along the knowledge from the previous generation to the new generation.”

He encourages the younger generation to begin a career as a heavy equipment operator and stresses that going to college isn’t the only option.

“Two years out of high school I made $200,000 and the other kids I graduated with are in debt $200,000 with a four year degree and don’t have a job to show for it,” he said.

Halle says that a career as a crane operator can be stressful, but if you like to constantly be on the go and have each day be different than being a crane operator would be a perfect fit.

“I grew up playing in the sand box, and I’m still playing in the sand box but the toys got bigger and the sand box got bigger,” he said with a laugh

For more stories like James’ visit


March 13, 2019

The Luukkonen Legacy – Three Generations of Local 49 Members

The Luukkonen Legacy – Three Generations of Local 49 Members

Photo (from left) John Luukkonen, Chris Luukkonen, Mike Luukkonen, Rick Luukkonen, Robert Luukkonen, Josh Luukkonen, Tim Luukkonen.


The Luukkonen family out of Virginia, MN can trace their union roots all the way back to the early 1940s. More than 20 family members have been members of Local 49.

John and Mike Luukkonen have each been members of Local 49 for more than 40 years and are the co-founders of the custom crushing and screening company Nothing’s Too Tough (NTT).

“When it comes to crushing, Nothing’s Too Tough, and that’s how it all began,” John said. John’s wife, Patrice, has a more fitting name for the company. “I always said No Time Today,” she said with a laugh.

The Luukkonens know that when you work for a crushing and screening company, you work seven days a week; you’re on call 24/7, and you work all year-round.

“Most of us were taught by our parents how to do this work; it’s always been ‘hey you’re not sitting at home today; you’re coming out to work,’” said Robert Luukkonen, a second generation crusher and 40-year member.

Their job in the mines is to screen pellets to take the fines out of them so that the mines can ship those materials to two different types of steel mills.

“The pellets made high quality steel some of which is used for automobiles, and the fines that we screen out of the pellets would go to make appliance items,” Robert explained.

Josh Luukkonen, Robert’s son, and a five-year member, explained that working year-round and always being on call is one of the toughest parts of the job.

“You could get a call at any moment by the mining companies. If they call at 2:00 a.m. saying they are broken down and need a conveyor to put materials in a plant, you have to go; otherwise they’ll just call someone else,” he said.

Josh explained that on the job site, you are also working in conjunction with the miners, so you have to build those relationships.

“You work side by side with them. Sometimes we have hoppers and conveyors set up into the plant, and the miners feed the hopper, and we would watch the belts and clean up,” Josh explained.

“Other jobs we’d be there screening or crushing, and the miners would be there to pick up what we’re screening and what’s coming off of our conveyors,” he added.

John and Mike started NTT in 1987 with four other partners and became sole owners in 1991.

“Well, you know you go to the bar; and you start talking, and we thought—hey we can do that,” Mike said with a laugh.

“When we first started, it was tough, but it got easier as we became more established, ” Mike added. “We always maintained a high level of work, and our guys always got paid on time.”

Since NTT’s inception, John and Mike made it a priority to keep it a union company.

“With the union, you have the most qualified people,” John said. “We would never hire anyone else because we have high standards. This is a legacy, and we intend to keep it that way.”

John also stated that having the benefits package with Local 49 was a contributing factor to NTT’s long-term success.

“The union offers security, good pay for workers, great benefits, and a great pension. You can’t beat it,” he said.

John and Mike recently sold NTT last year to a new owner, Aaran Leustek. They said that they would have never sold it if the new owner wouldn’t keep their employees and maintain the high standards that NTT has set for the last 30 years.

“We have a good reputation out there, and we wanted to make sure it was going into the hands of someone who would keep it that way,” John said.

While the type of work is tough, the Luukkonens take pride in their long family history in the business and in Local 49. They are even a staple in the northern Minnesota Local 49 summer picnic as the builders of the BBQ grill that is used to cook the food for the picnic.

John and Mike built the grill in 1991, and for more than 25 years, their employees are the ones who cook the food. NTT has also donated dozens of prizes for the event over the years.

(left) Robert and Rick Luukkonen standing with Local 49 Business Agent Dan Snidarich who presented them with their 40 year service pin.

Dan Snidarich, Local 49 Virginia Area Business Agent, spoke highly of the Luukkonen family saying, “They’re good union members, but they’re also just really great people, and their pedigree is at the highest level.”

Chris Luukkonen, who is the second oldest next to John, recently retired and worked 40 years as a 49er in the blacktop industry.

In addition to working on crushers, Ricky Luukkonen worked in the marine division of Local 49 for 20 years.

The Luukkonens will continue the family tradition of being in the crushing business and being proud long-standing members of Local 49.

“This is a legacy. My grandfather was a 49er. My dad is; all of my uncles and cousins are as well so it’s an honor to be a part of something this big and be able to contribute to it,” Josh said.

For more stories like the Luukkonens’, visit




February 5, 2019

Cole Uecker

Cole Uecker is a man with many interests. He is a heavy equipment operator, an educational speaker, and a North Dakota state senate candidate. He has also been a member of Local 49 for 14 years.

Before he got his start as a heavy equipment operator, Uecker spent his college days as an educational speaker on foster care.

Uecker was placed in the foster care system as a teenager and said the program completely turned his life around.

“They had a lot of programs that helped me in school, provided extracurricular activities, and then eventually offered me a full ride scholarship to college,” Uecker explained. “When I entered foster care, they told me I was the worst kid in the system, but by the time I left I turned out to be the best.”

Uecker’s first speaking engagement was in Bismarck to about 200 parents interested in foster care, and his audiences quickly grew.

“I eventually flew all over the country speaking to parents about foster care. My largest group was in Mesa, Arizona where I spoke to around 5,000 parents about how foster care can provide kids with structure and opens up so many opportunities,” he said. 

After obtaining his associates degree in welding from Bismarck College, he followed in his family’s footsteps and began a career in welding and construction.

“My grandfather and father were heavy equipment operators so I always knew I wanted to do something in construction,” Uecker said.

Uecker began his career as a welder for a gravel and recycling company, but when a dozer operator didn’t show up to work one day, he got his shot at operating.

“I did not do well at all,” Uecker laughed. “But I enjoyed it and they gave me another chance and I kept improving.”

Uecker worked his way up to becoming an excavator, until 2007 when he earned the opportunity to work as a crane oiler on a half a billion-dollar project.

Uecker had never worked as a crane oiler, but quickly found a passion for cranes.

“It was tough at first because I went from a job where I was walking 50 miles along a pipeline to not moving for 12 hours a day as a crane oiler,” he said. “So during down times I would pick up the crane manual and sit and read that or I would spend extra time waxing and polishing the crane.  The crane operator, Al Henke—now a Local 49 Business Agent—took notice and threw me in the seat one day.”

Uecker feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to operate 15 out of the 27 cranes that were on that project over two years.

“A lot of the old timers took me under their wing and taught me, and that’s just the best knowledge you can get,” Uecker said.

Uecker currently works as a crane operator for Acrotech, a subset of Northwest Contracting, where he works on a handful of challenging projects including the North Dakota State Penitentiary.

“When we first started, we would have to count the screws before putting them in. If we didn’t have the correct number, the whole job stopped because an inmate could find a screw on the ground and use it as a weapon,” Uecker explained.

“It really slowed the job down, but over time, we’ve learned a lot of new technology and different ways to build a concrete structure in a way that inmates couldn’t dig out from. We’ve made the building more secure than your average structure.” 

Uecker notes that while it’s a challenging job, he’s extremely proud to be a crane operator and calls it “the best seat in the house.”

“You can see everything from up there and you start to learn other processes that you might not have picked up from working on the ground,” he said.

Outside of his job, Uecker is also active in politics. In 2012 he ran for North Dakota State Senate in District 8.

“I started getting into politics when I started my first union job and I started really watching and following it. I would always be talking about politics on job sites until someone told me, Well, why don’t you do something about it?’ and so I said, ‘Fine, I will!’”

Uecker explained how campaigning was more difficult than he expected.

“It was a long and grueling process. I didn’t realize how hard it would be doing that with a full-time job and two kids,” Uecker said. “I was knocking door-to-door in every little town that I could, and I probably participated in about ten town parades.”

Ultimately, Uecker didn’t win, but he did have the highest democratic turnout in the district. While it was difficult, he said it was a rewarding experience.

Being a member of Local 49 has influenced many aspects of Uecker’s life. He says he’s grateful for all the opportunities Local 49 has given him.

“The security of knowing somebody has your back is one of the biggest things for me. The knowledge I’ve received, not only from other members, but everything you can learn at the Training Center is just so valuable.

For more stories like Cole’s please visit

May 25, 2018

Joe Heitkamp

Joe Heitkamp

Joe Heitkamp knew he needed a new career. He witnessed his parents struggle when they got to retirement age and they couldn’t retire. So, he sought out a career as a union heavy equipment operator and has been a member of the Local 49 for the past three years. 

“I was basically looking for a future and a solid retirement plan,” Heitkamp said, who is originally from Wyndmere, North Dakota.  The 49ers were already on his radar as he already heard of their benefits package from Local 49 business agent Nathan Brandt.

Heitkamp started his career at Northern Improvement in a gravel pit as a drag-line operator digging gravel and rock out of a lake, but he has been around heavy equipment his whole life.

“As a farm kid I had been around large pieces of equipment and had experience with operating big machinery before I even started with Northern Improvement,” Heitkamp said.

Shortly after his time with Northern Improvement, Heitkamp found a job as a leader operator on wind farms for Mortenson setting up pads for the large cranes to install the wind turbines. His first wind farm project was the Sunflower Wind Project in Hebron, North Dakota.

“It amazed me how fast those turbines would go up. I had no idea that we could put up so many of them in one day,” he said. “We put up at least four a day and we finished the project two months ahead of schedule. It was just a great experience and a great crew of guys.”

Heitkamp is currently working with Meyer Contracting as a dozer operator and recently completed a flood protection project in Oxbow, North Dakota, and is currently working in Williston, North Dakota on the new airport being built.

He says that being a part of Local 49 has shown him that no matter what project he’s worked on there’s always that sense of brotherhood.

“There’s definitely a strong brotherhood no matter what project I’m on. I love meeting new people and meeting other members of Local 49,” said Heitkamp.

Heitkamp is thankful for the Local 49 benefit plan and how it’s improved his life.

“Great wages and the great insurance for my family has been the biggest thing for me. Our insurance is second to none,” he said. “I’m just so proud to be a part of all of it.”

For more stories like Joe’s please visit

March 14, 2018

Pulling Our Weight: Building the Mankato Power Plant

Pulling Our Weight: Building the Mankato Power Plant

Members of Local 49 are once again playing an instrumental role in the construction of one of the largest projects in southwestern Minnesota.

The $300 million Southern Power project located in Mankato is a natural gas power plant that is nearly doubling in size. When completed, the plant will represent 270 megawatts of generating capacity.

The plant was originally built in 2005 and was a one steam turbine power plant. According to 13-year Local 49 member and Superintendent of the project Kris Houg, due to the inefficiency of the first steam turbine a second unit is being added, which is estimated to be completed by March 2019. 

The project is both efficient, and a huge economic boom for the Mankato area. Houg explained that the power plant’s combustion turbines make electricity by burning natural gas. Waste heat from the turbines is captured and reused to drive a separate steam turbine that produces additional electricity. Combined-cycle power plants produce high power outputs at high efficiencies and with low emissions.

“So essentially the steam power here is free,” Houg said. “They used to just vent it and the steam would go out a stack and be wasted, but now they recover the heat to make steam to power the facility.”

At the peak of the project there were nearly 20 Local 49 members working on the project.

The biggest portion of the project that Local 49 members worked on was the erection of the new facility where the second turbine will be. Local 49 members were also responsible for the dirt work part of the project.

“The biggest thing was when Vic’s (Crane Service) was here and we had a three-crane lift,” Houg said. “Some of the lifts were close to 500,000 pounds.”

Once the project is completed the plant will produce 650 megawatts and the power will be shipped across the upper Midwest. 

Members on the Project

Houg originally got his start in Local 49 working on the construction of the original Power Plant project in Mankato back in 2005 as a forklift operator. Houg returned to the Power Plant expansion project as a foreman, and was recently promoted to superintendent.

“I’ve always tried to do the best I can, and take on more responsibilities,” Houg said. “We’ve got the best group of people here that you could have, and I’m just really proud to be where I’m at and to have this opportunity.”

Twenty-year Local 49 member Leon Farrow, who is a crane operator at the Power Plant project, has extended experience on projects similar to this one. According to Farrow, this project is notable because of how smoothly and safely it has run so far.

Jordan Houg is a second-year apprentice with Local 49 working on the Power Plant project as a crane oiler. 

“I really like it out here, I work with a lot of good people and it’s exciting to be a part of something that will be here for another 30 years,” Houg said. 

Todd Palmer, a 26-year member, is a 2250 crane operator on the project

“This is only my second project like this, and so times have changed in regards to safety and crane size, but what I love most about this business is the people that I work with,” Palmer said.

For more project stories visit

March 7, 2018

Gerald Erickson

This year Local 49 member Gerald (Gerry) Erickson reached a tremendous and rare milestone. On October 13, 2017 Erickson officially achieved his 70-year membership status – something that Local 49 Business Manager, Glen Johnson, says has only happened once in his 15-year tenure.

Erickson is from Bena, a small town in northern Minnesota that is home to about 100 residents. “If you blink your eyes you wouldn’t see it,” Erickson says.

Before becoming a member of Local 49 in 1947, Erickson served in the United States Navy during World War II. “I was in the Navy for two years on a small aircraft carrier over in the Pacific, and I was involved in five different invasions,” Erickson explains. Two of these invasions were the historic battles that took place at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

“We listened to a lady that was broadcasting over the radio, and her name was Tokyo Rose. She told us how many suicide planes were going to be sent in the morning and again in the evening, and you could count on it. There they would be – a whole fleet of them,” Erickson says.

It was later discovered that “Tokyo Rose” was a name given by allied troops in the South Pacific during WWII to all female English-speaking radio broadcasters of Japanese propaganda. The programs were broadcast in the South Pacific and North America to demoralize allied troops and their families by emphasizing troops’ wartime difficulties and military losses.

“She would say things like think about your family at home, and she’d know names…she had a lot of information,” Erickson explains.

Erickson served as gunner on the aircraft carrier and describes one mission where the fleet of aircraft carriers and destroyers was attacked. During this mission, the carrier he was on was used as a decoy and managed to avoid massive damage. 

“They almost sunk all of us…all we had was our small carriers and destroyers and there was probably around a dozen aircraft carriers,” Erickson said. “But we went off as a kind of decoy because we had an admiral on board. So we took off and avoided most of the attack.”

After serving his two years in the Navy, Erickson returned home to Minnesota to find work. He began working in Deer River, Minnesota for Guthery Construction in 1946.

“I was first put on as an oiler for a crane, then they had me on a grease truck. One day my boss asked me if I knew how to run a scraper, and I said sure,” he said with a laugh. “That’s how I got my start in construction.”

“I didn’t know about Local 49 at first, that’s why I didn’t join in 1946,” Erickson said. “But after I joined I liked that they found the jobs for you and the wages were so much better compared to other work around…even back then.”

In 1947, Erickson was working in Buhl, Minnesota when a Local 49 business agent approached him about joining.

“I didn’t know about Local 49 at first, that’s why I didn’t join in 1946,” Erickson said. “But after I joined I liked that they found the jobs for you and the wages were so much better compared to other work around…even back then.”

Erickson said one of the first pieces of equipment he operated was called a Terra Cobra, which was a crude oil scraper. After gaining more experience, Erickson says he began operating “Super C’s”.

“The Super C’s were really wicked because they had steering clutches and you’d have to pull a steering clutch every time you wanted to change directions, depending on whether you were going up or down a hill,” Erickson explains. “There was no driving wheel, just levers, and you’d just coast along because there was no steering.”

One of the major projects Erickson worked on early in his career was the Garrison Dam in North Dakota. “I was there for two years and I operated the Terra Cobra out on that project.”

In 1949, Erickson began working for a contractor near Fargo, where he operated an electric scraper.

“They had little buttons you’d push to steer with and buttons to operate the scraper,” Erickson says. “That was new technology for its day and it was really nice.”

“I was in North Dakota for a quite a bit…see I was a beginner and they sent the beginners outward,” he laughs.

Erickson eventually returned to St. Paul in 1950, where he found a job that worked all year long. “It was a 70-hour job and we got double time back then… so I’ll tell ya, other guys wanted my job.”

Erickson stayed at that job for two years and worked for a few other contractors from 1953 through 1957. In 1957, Peter Lametti Construction Company hired Erickson on as a mechanic and he stayed there for 20 years.

“I started as a mechanic in their shop, but after two years Peter came out and told me I was his new master mechanic,” Erickson said. “I stayed there as master mechanic and I was in charge of all of the equipment in the shop.”

“Then one day he told me that I was his new superintendent,” Erickson laughs. “For a time I was overseeing the other operators, but I didn’t really like that work, and eventually returned to master mechanic.”

In 1978, Erickson left Peter Lametti Construction Company and began working at Acton Construction as a field mechanic for cranes. Through this position he was able to work all over the United States repairing cranes. Erickson ended his career with Acton when he retired in 1990.

Erickson says that he’s been proud to be a 49er throughout his life, and has even helped his son Rick Erickson become a member of Local 49.

Gerald Erickson was honored during the October 2017 Minneapolis union meeting, where he received his 70-year pin.


For more stories like Gerald’s please visit

December 13, 2017

Travis Grime

Travis Grime

From serving his country to serving those affected by Hurricane Harvey in Texas,  Local 49 member Travis Grime shows that his willingness to help people knows no bounds.

Grime grew up in a small farming community in Ohio, and has been around heavy equipment his whole life.

“My mom would be the first to tell you that I was a ‘Tonka Truck’ kid since my earliest memories,” Grime said. In addition to an early love for machinery, he had family ties to the industry. “I had a cousin that was older than me that was an operator and I would say he was my inspiration to become an operator.”

After graduating high school, Grime joined the United States Navy and was enlisted for seven years. Grime felt a true passion for serving, and after the call to action that followed September 11, 2001, he transitioned from the Navy to the Marine Corps.

“I found that the Marines were much more my type of thing… they were considerably more disciplined…and once I found out that they had a heavy equipment program that was it – I was in,” Grime said.

When Grime entered the Marine Corps he was immediately placed in their heavy equipment program. “I remember specifically telling my recruiter that if I couldn’t be a heavy equipment operator in the Marine Corps then I wasn’t going to go, and that’s exactly where he placed me,” Grime said with a laugh.

To further his experience with heavy equipment Grime became a certified Marine Corps heavy equipment operator after attending a two-month long course at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Grime was then deployed to Iraq for nine months, giving him the opportunity to put these skills to work.

“I was doing vehicle recovery in Iraq, and we did a lot of road building and maintenance projects all around our base,” Grime said. “If we ever had to go outside the wire we would call it – or off base – there would be people with mine sweeping equipment that go out beforehand and would determine the best course of action if they encountered any sort of situation.” 

Grime said that his heavy equipment experience in the military definitely set him up for success once he transitioned from active duty.

“As a heavy equipment operator in the military, it aligned me very well with being a union operator,” Grime said. “There’s also a lot of other veterans that I’ve worked with over the years in the field so that brotherhood that I felt when I was in the Marine Corps transferred into the union as well.”

“As a heavy equipment operator in the military, it aligned me very well with being a union operator,” Grime said. “There’s also a lot of other veterans that I’ve worked with over the years in the field so that brotherhood that I felt when I was in the Marine Corps transferred into the union as well.”

When Grime was transitioning from active duty, the oil boom in North Dakota was in full swing. In 2013 he found an advertisement in the newspaper for a heavy equipment operator, and this led him to meet with North Dakota Local 49 Business Agents Al Henke and Darrell Miller to discuss local opportunities. They welcomed him with open arms and helped him get his first job as a Local 49 heavy equipment operator.

“I got to travel all over North Dakota while I was out there,” Grime said. “I started off on a roller and one day there was a scraper guy that wasn’t there and my boss gave me a shot… within a couple days I was keeping up with guys that have been doing it for years.”

In recent years Grime has worked on multiple large projects across Minnesota, including the “Be The Match” building across from Target Field, the new Senate Office Building and the Stillwater Bridge. Grime is a certified crane operator, but also has many years of experience operating different pieces of heavy equipment. He credits his career versatility to training from the Local 49 Training Center.

“I try and attend the Training Center as often as possible for any and all classes that I think will make me more marketable,” Grime said “For example, when crane work is slow maybe I’ll go take an advanced excavator class or the sewer and water class…I’ve spent months up there. My first year I was at the Training Center for three months straight.”

Grime says that being a member of Local 49 and a skilled heavy equipment operator are qualifications that give him a tremendous amount of pride.

“We’re the most highly trained and qualified operators anywhere in the country, and it’s something that I definitely puff my chest out about,” Grime said. “I know there are other great locals out there, but we are known far and wide for being exceptional operators.”

Recently, Grime felt a similar call to action after hearing about the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas. He knew that he wanted to help, and knew he could use his skills to bring relief to the area. He partnered with Team Rubicon—a non-profit organization that utilizes the skills of military veterans to provide immediate relief to those impacted by disasters and humanitarian crisis—to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey.

“When I went over to Rockport, Texas that was where I saw the absolute devastation…it looked like a third world country going down the highway and seeing thousands of trees that were blown over and homes damaged,” Grime said. “It was the most humbling experience of my life.” 

Grime volunteered in Texas for two weeks after Hurricane Harvey officially hit and says that there are still thousands of people who need help, as the wreckage is still evident.

“That is why I went down there, to help the people that need help the most,” Grime said. “There’s just an overwhelming need for help, but everyone that we encountered were extremely thankful of the support – I would absolutely do this again.”


For more stories like Travis’ please visit and for more information on Team Rubicon please visit

November 10, 2017

Chuck Kaufman

Chuck Kaufman

Six-year Local 49 member and long-time Iron Range resident, Chuck Kaufman, was one of the more than 100 Local 49 members that worked on the Highway 53 Bridge Relocation project – which is now officially the highest bridge in Minnesota.

Kaufman has been involved in the project since it’s inception in 2015, and will be one of the few workers that remain at the Highway 53 Bridge after the official grand opening today.

Kaufman started as a mechanic with Kiewit Infrastructure Company until he was transitioned into operating forklift. Kaufman credits his continued education at the Local 49 Training Center and a variety of certifications to his integral position on this monumental project.

“Especially when we were pouring the bridge deck up there, you just catch yourself looking down, and looking out and looking at the scenery around, going, ‘Jeez, this thing’s up in the air,'”

Read Chuck’s Quote in this story on →

 ‘Engineering marvel’: New bridge brings excitement to the Iron Range

“Especially when we were pouring the bridge deck up there, you just catch yourself looking down, and looking out and looking at the scenery around, going, ‘Jeez, this thing’s up in the air,'”

Read Chuck’s Quote in this story on →

 ‘Engineering marvel’: New bridge brings excitement to the Iron Range

“I started wrenching in the shop for Kiewit, but always kept my forklift card up to date. When work in the shop started to slow down they moved me to forklift and I’ve worked the forklift ever since,” Kaufman said.

As a forklift operator Kaufman loaded and unloaded various materials that were used to build the bridge, while also working on a few specialty projects. Throughout the project, Kaufman operated a Bidwell roller, which smoothed down the concrete on each side of the bridge.

“There’s a lot to watch when operating a Bidwell roller, because you have to pay attention to the pitch (angle) of the slope in the road and ensure it’s right. While doing this you must also keep an eye out for the laborers and cement finishers who are working on it with you,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman was also responsible for setting the barrier fence across the bridge. This particular job included installing the last ornamental rail to go on the bridge with the ironworkers.

“We had to put up a bridge-length fence on the side of the bike path so it provides protection for walkers, snowmobiles and bikers,” Kaufman said.

All in all, Kaufman affirms the project ran smoothly from start to finish, but maintained a very fast pace.

“The project had a much faster pace than many of the projects I have worked on, but from my perspective the planning was done very carefully and efficiently,” Kaufman said. “The Highway 53 Bridge Relocation project was very fun to work on and I wish it didn’t have to end so soon.”

For the next month, Kaufman will continue to work as part of the loading and packing up crew at the Highway 53 Bridge.


For more stories like Chuck’s visit

September 15, 2017

April Lee

April Lee

From the office to the outdoors – Local 49 member April Lee left her office job at United Health Group last year to pursue a career as an operating engineer.

Lee worked for United Health Group for 10 years before leaving and credits her husband, who is a member of IUOE Local 232, for encouraging her to switch professions.

“My husband is always talking highly about unions and really sees the value in them,” Lee explained. “I was getting tired of my job and one day as I was driving down the road I thought, ‘I could be an operating engineer. It looks a lot more fun and challenging.’”

Lee started inquiring about becoming a member of Local 49 and was eventually hired on by Kramer North America as a crane oiler. “I was just so in awe of the crane and the functionality of it, and of the operators themselves, how effortless they look,” Lee said. “I know it takes more work than they make it look, so I just really wanted to pursue cranes as a career after I spent the summer around them.”

Now that Lee has been a member of Local 49 for a year, she says that there is no comparison between her previous job and being an operator.

“Being in an office job can make you very lethargic and now I have much more energy. I enjoy being outside, and working with my hands is much more rewarding,” Lee explained. “I’m seeing what’s being done and getting to see the finished product and can take pride in that. With an office job, you don’t get that kind of reward, you don’t always get to see those finished products.”

“There’s also more support with being in the union, specifically more than with an office job,” she added. “In the office, it’s every man for themselves and you’re not really supporting each other, you’re just fighting to get to the top. Here, it doesn’t feel like that because everyone is trying to achieve the same goal and wants you to be the best you can be.”

Lee said another key aspect that motivated her to switch jobs was the health and retirement benefits that Local 49 offers. “The pension and health benefits are completely better than what I’ve had before,” she said.

“The health insurance with Local 49 is even better than my husband’s benefits, they cover more, have a lower deductible and are just better all around,” Lee said. “For the retirement benefits, I had a 401K with my previous company and what I made in 10 years in my 401K with that company’s match, I actually made about half of in just three months working with the union.”

Another critical part of Lee’s switch to Local 49 was the crane apprenticeship program through the Local 49 Training Center and being able to broaden her knowledge and education.

Her employer, Kramer North America, sponsored Lee to become an apprentice at the Local 49 Training Center so she could get the training she needed to eventually become a crane operator. “The training program is an outstanding program that you don’t find in other jobs,” she said.

Lee explained that becoming a crane apprentice has made her a much more confident operator.

“Some of it was more difficult than other parts, like the classroom part of it. It’s so much information, but it was very helpful and it gave me a better idea of what goes into crane operating and the mechanics of the crane,” Lee explained. “I feel that it was an extremely beneficial part of the class to take.”

Lee explained that the hands-on part of the crane apprenticeship training program made her more prepared for, and comfortable with, operating a crane on the job.

“Last summer I would jump in the cab and I would say (to the crane operator), ‘I’m not jumping in the cab without you standing there,’” Lee said. “Now I’m confident I could jump in without someone standing there telling me to do the job. I’m not intimidated anymore.”

“Ultimately my goal is to be an operator and that’s why I joined the crane apprenticeship program. I don’t expect that immediately, but the goal is to be a full-time operator,” she added.

For more stories like April’s, visit under the Apprenticeship Stories section.

June 23, 2017

Al Gilbertson

Al Gilbertson

Al Gilbertson, an employee of Vic’s Cranes & Heavy Haul Inc., is currently the sole operator for the largest crawler crane in Minnesota. As a 13-year member of Local 49, Gilbertson has had experience operating different types of cranes and has dedicated his 13-year career as a member of Local 49 to learning all he can about these machines. “I went through all of the Local 49 Training Center’s crane classes, and took all of those opportunities and capitalized on them,” Gilbertson said.

Right out of high school Gilbertson operated some smaller hydraulic cranes, but for most of his time prior to operating cranes he was a residential carpenter. “I did carpentry for a number of years but knew I wanted to get back into the crane industry and have a career with that,” he said.

Gilbertson re-entered the rental crane industry working for Mortenson to install wind turbines.

“I took the opportunity to chase wind turbines all around the country for seven years, and with putting them up they obviously use rather large (crane) rigs and that’s what got me into large crawler cranes,” Gilbertson explained. “So, just being on that side of it and working my way up from the smaller rigs into the larger rigs is how I got my crawler crane experience.”

After his time at Mortenson, Gilbertson heard of an opportunity at Vic’s Cranes, which was closer to home. “At that time I was getting kind of tired of traveling across the country putting up wind turbines, so it just happened to work out perfectly that they were looking for help and I was looking to stay home,” he said. “I came on board officially in 2013 and they’ve kept me busy ever since.”

Once Vic’s Cranes purchased what is now the largest crawler crane in Minnesota in the summer of 2015, the company immediately asked Gilbertson if he would be interested in operating it, which he gladly accepted.

Gilbertson also mentioned that he is a second-generation member of Local 49 – with a twist. “In 2006 I was working at a company that needed a forklift operator, so I had called the business agent that got me in Local 49 in 2004 and asked if that was the kind of job my dad could do with his kind of experience. So actually, my dad got in Local 49 after me, which the business agent told me was really rare,” he said with a laugh.

“At the time he was partially retired, but he was getting bored so he came out to help where I was working and is now happily retired again as of last year,” Gilbertson added.

Since being the sole operator of that crane Gilbertson has been on many unique jobs. At the end of May he was in Rochester installing a new boiler for Seneca Foods. “They had to set 90,000 pounds and 280 feet into the building. There were too many obstructions in the way to try and bring it in from the outside, so they got a hold of us to bring it in through the roof,” he explained.

According to Gilbertson, one of the heaviest sets that he’s done was a job in East Dubuque, Illinois setting an ammonia vessel that weighed three-quarters of a million pounds. Gilbertson said that a lot of the jobs that he’s called on to do are for instances where it’s an extremely heavy load that needs to go a far distance.

Gilbertson didn’t get to where he is today all on his own; he credits his fellow Local 49 members for helping him along the way.

“My experience with Local 49 has been great. The guys that I worked with when I first got into the crane industry were absolutely instrumental in getting me where I am today,” Gilbertson explained. “I was very fortunate to make friends with some very good operators who taught me the right things along the way – it’s because of them that I am where I am today.”

He added that during his time installing wind turbines around the country he knew that Local 49 operators were the best operators nationwide. “When you meet a 49er or call a 49er out to a job, they’re well versed and they understand their job – you don’t find that with a lot of the other locals.”

June 16, 2017

John Korzan

John Korzan

John Korzan of Kimball, South Dakota was a member of Local 49 for nearly 40 years before retiring in 2014. Korzan’s career as an operator has taken him all over the country – even as far as Maui and the big island of Hawaii.

In 1975 Korzan started his career driving truck for Don Jerke Construction in Sioux Falls, and eventually worked his way up to running crane for Jerke Construction until 1996. In 2000, Korzan began working for Mortenson and installed wind turbines all over the country. One of his more memorable projects installing wind turbines was a job that led him to the island of Maui.

“We were installing a wind turbine on top of a mountain, and every piece had to be hauled up this mountain by truck,” Korzan said. “The cells that had to be hauled up were 128,000 pounds.” Korzan recalled that at one point the transmission went out in the truck because the weight of the cells was so heavy. “Eventually we had to use a loader and put a large rock in the bucket and pull up the pieces to install this wind turbine.”

Korzan worked in Maui for six months completing the installation of the wind turbine, and he said what made the job particularly memorable was the time of year he was working. “We were working during whale season so you’d look off the side of this mountain and could see all of the whales come in with their babies,” Korzan said. “The whales looked like big boats coming out of the water.”

Korzan also worked on a three month long project on the big island of Hawaii.

“What happened in Hawaii was a guy boomed his crane out too far and he collapsed the boom so Mortenson sent me out there to put it back together,” he said.

Korzan described another memorable project, which was being a part of the construction of the University of South Dakota Dome.

“Before we installed the steel roof they had an air roof, but it kept tearing so the school decided to put a permanent steel roof on top of the dome,” Korzan said. “The roof is about 100 ft. wide, so one crane wasn’t enough to install the roof. They needed two cranes and then those two cranes would meet in the middle to install the steel roof of the dome,” Korzan said.

Korzan says he’s always been interested operating cranes, and liked the variety of the job. “It’s something different all the time as a crane operator.”

Since retiring three years ago, Korzan says he has one piece of advice for younger members: Stay in the union. “I definitely couldn’t retire if I would have had to pay more for my health insurance, “Korzan said. “I’m fortunate enough where I could afford to retire early because I’ve had continuous service with the union.”

Due to his continuous service with Local 49, Korzan obtained the maximum subsidy off of his health insurance premium. Even though Korzan is grateful for his decision now, he reflected on when work was short in the 1970s.

“A lot of people in the late 1970s took a withdrawal because times were tough, but you got to take the good with the bad and I’m glad I did. That’s what I tell people now is to stay with Local 49,” Korzan said.

Now that Korzan is retired, he enjoys spending his free time with his family, and exploring his hobbies. “My wife and I do a little traveling, and I’ve been buying hot rod cars and fixing them up…I keep busy,” Korzan said with a laugh.

For more stories like John’s visit the Members at Work section at

May 24, 2017

Fritz Panek

Fritz Panek

Fritz Panek has more than 40 years experience in the construction industry before being brought on part-time as the large heavy equipment instructor at the Operating Engineers Local 49 Training Center. “I can run any piece of equipment when it comes to dirt work,” said Panek.

Fritz Panek - Local49

Panek grew up on a dairy farm, and graduated from high school in 1973. Panek said the day after he graduated he was immediately on a push-cat dozer. “My dad had a little construction company with a couple of dozers and scrapers so I went to work for him, and worked for him for about seven years,” Panek said.

In April of 1980 is when Panek got his first chance to work with a union contractor. “I worked for Blatner where I worked on (Interstate Highway) I35 East on Cedar Avenue, but I also worked all over the country for them.”

In 1988 Panek took a career leap and started his own business with his three brothers. “I felt there was a niche for what I was going to be doing, and I had a gravel pit on my own farm so I didn’t have to buy gravel, which helped me a lot to get started,” he said about starting his own business. “I started out with just a dump truck and a loader, and then later down the line I invested in a crusher, conveyors and excavators,” Panek continued.

Panek eventually sold his business in 2005 to a local contractor, and went into semi-retirement until 2009 when the health insurance market changed, and his wife Mary switched careers. “It was in 2009 when the health insurance market got out of hand when I went back into the union to become an operator,” stated Panek. “Local 49 has way better health insurance than just about anybody; we get everything covered.”

Panek worked for Kuechle Underground out of Kimball, MN for a few years then worked for Landwehr and Hardrives before being presented with the offer of becoming a part time instructor at the Local 49 Training Center. “It’s very rewarding that you get to help people advance in their training and career,” Panek said of the opportunity.

Panek currently teaches large heavy equipment classes, but says his favorite is the loaders. “I have over 35 years of experience with loaders so I like to think I know what I’m talking about,” Panek said with a laugh.

Panek says he stresses to his classes the importance of being involved in the union and knowing the issues that affect them and their work. “I’ve been way more involved than when I was younger, and I do preach about that during my classes,” Panek said. “I keep them up to date with what’s going on with Right to Work issues and stuff on the (Local 49) website.”

Panek also educates members on the importance of knowing about all of the benefits that are available to them and their family. “I talk to them about the insurance and about the health meetings,” said Panek. “I went to my first one in 2010, and I didn’t know half of the stuff we had, so I try to educate them about all of the information.”

Panek particularly encourages the younger members about how being in Local 49 can not only lead you to a good job, but a long-lasting career. “There are always roads that are going to need to be built and structures to put up, so if you’re willing to put in the time and work, this is a great and rewarding career.”

For more stories like Fritz’s visit

March 28, 2017

Eric Richardson

Eric Richardson

Eric Richardson began his next journey as a Pipeline worker on the Dakota Access Pipeline and a member of Local 49 after 24 years of experience in the United States Army. Richardson, who grew up in Wyoming, but now lives in Cloquet, MN, joined the Army in 1987.

“For my first two years in the Army I was stationed in Germany, and then came back to Fort Hood, Texas where I was then deployed to Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm,” Richardson said. After returning to the U.S. Richardson was a part of the counter drug missions between the U.S. and Mexican border. “I was responsible for tracking drugs coming across the border, and then later on I actually went back as a special ops mission planner, and I planned all of those missions,” Richardson said about the drug missions.

In 2004 Richardson was deployed to Iraq where he ran security force for combat support convoys. Richardson returned to the United States for a short time before deploying again to Iraq from 2006-2008. “That was a 15 month deployment, and that was a tough one…I think we lost about 30 some people during that deployment,” Richardson recalled.

When Richardson returned to the states he went to training to become a Sergeant in Fort Jackson, South Carolina and deployed to Afghanistan in 2010-2011. After he completed his mission in Afghanistan, Richardson decided it was time to retire from the military.

From there he used his military experience for his next job as a personal security professional for the United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. “We provided diplomatic security for chief personnel in Kabul, Afghanistan, and I did that for nearly five years,” stated Richardson. “I would spend 105 days there, and then return to the U.S. for 35 days…you weren’t living in the best conditions, but it was a step above being deployed in the Army,” he added.

After his time doing security detail, Richardson decided it was time to come home for good, and find a job that is more local. Joe Chastan, the Local 49 Business Agent out of Bagley, MN, helped Richardson find his first job and helped him become a member of Local 49. “Joe gave me an opportunity to be an oiler on the (Dakota Access) Pipeline,” Richardson said of the new opportunity. “I thought it was fantastic and it was interesting to see how that pipe went into the ground,” he continued. “I had a really good business agent, good steward and great foremen up there that taught me a lot.”

Richardson became a member of Local 49 in June 2016, and worked on Spread 7 of the Pipeline, which is located in Williston and Watford, North Dakota. That part of the Pipeline work wrapped up in November 2016.

During the off-season, Richardson said he is taking full advantage of the Operating Engineers Local 49 Training Center. “I took the OSHA 30 class, two pipeline horizontal directional drilling classes, a side boom class, and then I also took the dozer and excavator class,” Richardson said. “I thought the Training Center was great, and the instructors are phenomenal; I can’t say one bad thing about any of the training there,” Richardson continued.

While Richardson hasn’t been a member of Local 49 for very long, he said he is excited about the opportunities Local 49 has already given him. “The union has got great benefits, great opportunities and it’s a way for me to travel around the United States.”

For more stories like Eric’s visit the Members At Work tab on


March 17, 2017

Mark Doble

Mark Doble

Mark Doble, a two year member of Local 49, has made a difference in his local community and beyond. He has impacted communities across the country by volunteering for the Red Cross for the past 11 years and being deployed to 22 different disasters.

Doble has worked for the Metropolitan Council (MET Council) as a wastewater treatment operator at the Seneca Plant in Eagan for the past four years. Doble was formerly a member of Local 49’s sister Local – Local 35 – before they merged with Local 49 two years ago.

Being a union operator is something Doble says has been in the family for generations.

“I am a fourth generation union operator, and my grandfather helped start Local 35,” Doble said.

Now being a part of Local 49, he said it is a unique experience going from a small local to one of the largest unions in the state of Minnesota.

“It’s great having a lot of brothers and sisters,” Doble said. “I try to stay involved and attend every meeting, and last year I was also involved in the Day at the Capitol.”

Doble originally obtained his culinary degree. Prior to his time at the MET Council, he was a sous-chef at Target Field’s Champion’s Club restaurant, which is also a union restaurant.

“Being from a union family has had a very strong influence in my life, and I try my best to support the union as much as I can,” Doble said. “It’s part of the reason I got the job at Target Field because I knew it was union and I try to stay within the union with the jobs I’ve had.”

Being a part of the union is not the only passion Doble has, volunteering for the Red Cross has taken him across the country helping thousands of people in need. Doble’s first experience volunteering for the Red Cross was responding to the 2007 Interstate-35W Bridge collapse.

“The I-35W Bridge collapse was my very first response, and it was a very traumatic experience,” Doble stated. “But we (Red Cross) have a great support system around us.”

Doble said one of the more memorable volunteer experiences he had was responding to the recent Flint, Michigan water crisis.

“I was senior leadership during this time and I was responsible for planning how we distributed water to the residents of Flint,” he said.

Doble estimated that there was more than a million gallons of water to be distributed, and they are still giving out water to this day.

“If we weren’t there to help the people in those communities, they would have never gotten water,” Doble said. “There was such a distrust there that certain communities would only take water from the Red Cross and no one else.”

In addition to the Flint, Michigan water crisis, Doble responded to the 2010 Memphis, Tennessee flood, which flooded the Grand Ole Opry. He was in charge of distributing food during that disaster.

2010 was a memorable year for Doble as he was the recipient of the highly distinguished Red Cross Volunteer of the Year award and through that award he met President Obama.

“I really feel that I need to give back to my community, and it’s an important part of being a member of a community,” Doble stated.

Doble has no plans of stopping his volunteering, and was even asked to help with the recent Georgia floods, but due to timing was unable to.

“When I first joined the Red Cross I was never a hugger, well I became one again because that’s just what it does to you,” Doble said with a laugh.

For more stories on members of Local 49 please visit

February 3, 2017

Akeethia Brown

Akeethia Brown

“My life literally did a complete flip flop, and it’s been a blessing,” said Akeethia Brown, a one-year member of Local 49.

Brown, who currently works for Lunda Construction Company as a crane operator, began her interest in heavy equipment when she was working part time in the maintenance department at Summit Academy.

“I would watch all of these women enter into the program and graduate, and when you’re working in maintenance you kind of get to eavesdrop into the classrooms and learn a lot,” she said.

“So one day I was listening in on the heavy equipment class, and I got to see what they did,” she added.

Brown eventually entered into the program, graduated and was hired on with Lunda shortly after graduation.

Brown described her first day working as a crane operator “overwhelming, but exciting.”

“My first day out here I felt like a little bug…Everything was so different, and it was my first time involved in anything construction related,” she said, “But everyone here is so helpful and encouraging.”

Brown said what she loves most about the job is how much she gets to learn, and grow her skill set as a crane operator.

“When I go home at night I can say that I’ve at least learned three new things that day,” she said, “To me, that’s what life is about.”

Brown also is excited about the opportunity to take more classes at the Training Center.

“I plan on taking as many classes as I can at the Training Center,” she said.

Since the apprenticeship program can be spread out over the four years, and is very adaptable to member’s schedules, Brown said it still takes commitment to finish.

“There’s a lot of certifications, and it definitely takes dedication,” she said.

Brown said her main inspiration for beginning her career as a heavy equipment operator is her daughter, Samari, and being able to provide for her.

“I walked into my daughter’s classroom one day, and all of her friends who are little girls came out to me and we’re so excited and said, ‘Wow! That’s so cool your mom is in construction!’”

“So it’s not only cool that I’m inspiring myself, but I can inspire younger girls to show them that they can be in this field,” Brown said.

Brown said that the health care benefits through the Operating Engineers Local 49 Health and Welfare Fund has also greatly improved her family’s quality of life.

“The health care with the union (Local 49) it’s amazing,” she said.

When Brown compares her life to what it was even just a year ago to what it is like now, she said that her life has changed dramatically for the better.

“Sometimes I really feel like this is a dream, I like everything I’m doing out here in the field, and as long as I enjoy what I’m doing that’s really all that matters at the end of the day,” Brown said.

December 16, 2016