Fred Dereschuk made it his business to fight for the working man and woman.

“Fred exemplified what a labor leader is meant to be,” said Vincent Giblin, former general president of the International Union of Operating Engineers who served alongside him on the international executive board. Dereschuk, a longtime business manager for the union’s Local 49, served as vice president for the national organization, which represents 400,000 members — mostly heavy equipment operators — in the United States and Canada.

He was a fiercely independent man who fought to ensure fair wages and working conditions for his members while ensuring he could supply the most skilled operators to contractors, keeping companies competitive in their bids, Giblin said.

“The organization owes a debt to Fred Dereschuk for what he accomplished for us,” he said. “He certainly made the road a lot easier and he certainly gave a lot of blood, sweat and tears to this organization.”

Dereschuk, who retired in 2003, died June 12 from kidney failure. He was 86.

“He was a rare commodity — the type of labor leader that’s gone forever,” Giblin said.

Dick Ames, chairman of the board for Ames Construction, often sat across the negotiating table from Dereschuk. “We had some terrible arguments at the table,” he said, laughing. But the two, who knew each other for more than 50 years, were also friends.

“I knew Fred was going to be a strong individual,” Ames said. “He would be fair but he stuck up for what he believed in and that was a fair working environment for his members. He represented his members as good, if not better than anyone else, and I’ve been around a long time.”

He was a simple, strong-willed man who could be blunt and forceful, and his “word was as good as gold,” friends and family said. But always “his purpose in life was to help the working man,” said his wife, Jan, of Ham Lake.

A strong work ethic was the fabric of his life with lessons first learned growing up on the family farm near Floodwood, Minn. His father was a Ukrainian immigrant who was only 13 when he worked his way across Europe after his family died during a typhoid outbreak. After landing at Ellis Island, Dereschuk’s father found work in a Brooklyn bakery before heading west to Minnesota.

It was there on the farm that Fred Dereschuk found his roots as a laborer. Off the farm, he found work in the woods in northern Minnesota, the wheat fields in Montana, and a peas and corn packing plant in LeSueur, his wife said. Eventually he became a heavy equipment operator, working road construction that led him from the taconite mines in northern Minnesota to federal freeway work around the region.

Dereschuk, who joined Local 49 in the 1950s, eventually became the local’s dispatcher, working his way to serve as its president and eventually business manager.

“He was the salt of the earth,” Giblin said. “He never forgot where he came from.”

“You would never find Fred in a $1,000 suit,” he said. “You would find him in a $250 suit. That’s who Fred was. He didn’t change from the day he wore the overalls to the day he put the suit on to be their chief executive officer.”

And he loved the underdog, said his son, Bruce, of Alamo, Calif. He “was right out of the mold of a classic old-time superhero, a man who needed a community to serve and to protect, people to save, wrongs to be made right.”

He is also survived by son Lee, of Ladera Ranch, Calif.; two daughters, Beth Hermansen of Coon Rapids and Jill Hawk of Warba, Minn.; and 10 grandchildren. Services have been held.