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.