By DON McINTOSH
Defying hopes that he might ride down the hall on the vintage Harley on display in his office, Bob Petroff left Machinists District Lodge W24 headquarters in mid-January without fanfare. It was the close of 49 years of involvement with the Machinists union, and a wrap on a second generation of Machinist union Petroffs.
Petroff, 70, joined Machinists Local Lodge 63 in the Portland shipyard like his father, and like his father became a union officer.
Born Dec. 13, 1953, Bob grew up in Northeast Portland, an only child in a Catholic family. His father, John Petroff, had come to the United States as a child from Yugoslavia. His mother, Jerry Scibor, grew up in Portland in a Polish Catholic family, where her father helped build the St. Stanislaus Polish Catholic Church on North Interstate. The pair met during World War II at the Kaiser shipyards in Portland — he was a union machinist and she was a secretary represented by the operating engineers union.
John Petroff was the top officer of Local Lodge 63, a full-time position, and later a union representative for Machinists District Council 24 until his 1978 retirement. For Bob, that meant union culture and traditions were a big part of growing up.
In shop class at Grant High School, he worked lathes and mills, learned welding, and found that he liked working with his hands. After graduating, he took classes at what was then Portland State College, but decided that wasn’t for him. On his dad’s recommendation, he went to work for Radiation International, a Machinist-represented maker of parts for Boeing airplanes, but he learned that finishing parts with an air gun eight hours a day wasn’t his cup of tea either. He tried boiler repair, took mechanical classes at Mt. Hood Community College, and eventually went to work as a machinist maintaining equipment at the Portland shipyard as his dad had done.
“I was doing a lot of the same work that my father used to do, And a lot of the guys that were still down there knew my dad.”
For six and a half years he worked on the Port’s shipyard maintenance crew. Petroff ran for union offices soon after joining the Machinists, starting with sentinel, a kind of sergeant-at-arms in charge of counting members at meetings.
When the multi-craft District Council of Trade Unions (DCTU) went on strike at the shipyards in the summer of 1981, Petroff was a strike captain, and got in some water-skiing while on picket duty in a boat on the shipyard’s river perimeter.
The strike was a classic early ‘80s collision of old-time union solidarity with newly agressive anti-union employers. The 83 DCTU members struck in part to stop the Port of Portland from contracting out three janitor jobs, and 900 other shipyard workers honored their picket lines, shutting down the shipyard. But management was determined to wait them out, and even engaged in dirty tricks: In an incident extensively publicized in the Labor Press at the time, an agent provocateur hired by the Port of Portland infiltrated the union, threw firecrackers, and tried to get picketers to commit violence against guards, only to vanish after he was publicly exposed. The strike ended after 89 days on roughly the same terms management had offered at the beginning. Petroff was laid off soon after.
After a detour selling antique cars, he took a Machinists union dispatch to Nabisco, becaming permanent in 1983. He stayed until June 30, 1996, and worked graveyard the whole time. Meanwhile he served as union trustee, vice president of the local, and by the mid-90s, president.
In 1992 he volunteered as an organizer and took part in one of numerous failed union drives at Precision Castparts. And in July 1996 he went on staff as a full-time union organizer, and remained until 2001, helping organize workers at Siemens Solar and Gerber knives.
John Petroff died in 1995 and never got to see his son’s subsequent career in the labor movement. But Bob Petroff says he learned a great deal from his dad about unions and about how to treat people.
“I found it interesting to talk to people,” Petroff recalls. “As I was taught, God gave you two ears and one mouth. Listen twice as hard.”
Petroff liked getting to know the rank-and-file members he was assigned to represent. He’s a natural conversationalist, with a stock of colorful sayings, a no-bullshit style, and (possibly) a twinkle of mischief in the eyes.
“You got to be honest with members. If that grievance that I filed over your termination is not going to be successful, I’m going to be the one that tells you that.”
In 2001, encouraged by fellow delegates, he ran for the district lodge’s top office, directing business representative, and defeated incumbent Dave Plant. Then in 2005, at the head of a slate of reformers, he defeated a challenge from Brian Severns.
In 2011, District Lodge 24 merged with Woodworkers District Lodge W1, an independent wood products union that had affiliated with the International Association of Machinists in 1994. In the course of the merger, Petroff became one of three assistant directing business representatives. He ran for the district’s top position again in 2014 but lost to Woodworker Noel Willet.
Given the importance of the Boeing unit in Gresham, Petroff had assigned himself to be the Boeing rep when he first came to lead the district lodge. He stuck with that assignment for over 14 years, taking part in national negotiations. Those years brought bitter battles with Boeing, including several strikes and disastrous corporate decisions. Boeing sold off its Wichita plant and globalized production of its new Dreamliner while assembling it at a new non-union factory in right-to-work South Carolina.
In 2014, Petroff says he faced anger from Boeing members for a decision that wasn’t his: the re-vote of an eight-year contract extension that members had turned down. Boeing was threatening to move production of its new 777X airliner out of the Puget Sound if members didn’t agree to eliminate their defined benefit pension plan. Machinists’ national president Thomas Buffenbarger ordered a second vote during the winter holidays, and it passed by 51%. Though Local Lodge 63 members voted it down 2-to-1, they were stuck with the national contract.
“I had made it as clear as I could, if I had a vote, I would vote no, to not do away with my pension,” Petroff said.
Over the years, Petroff also represented Machinists at Nabisco, Portland shipyard, and many other shops.
Preserving and defending his father’s union was always the core of his commitment, but like the elder Petroff, he was also an important figure in cross-union bodies like the Portland Metal Trades Council, Labor’s Community Service Agency, and the Northwest Labor Press. Petroff joined the Labor Press board in 2001 and has served as board president since 2009.
It was 1979 when he first became a delegate to what was then known as the Multnomah Labor Council, now known as Northwest Oregon Labor Council (NOLC). In the 1980s, as chair of its picnic committee, he helped move the Labor Day event from Blue Lake Park to Oaks Park. In 1999 he became NOLC president, and was re-elected four times. But in 2016 he had to step aside as NOLC president after losing an election to represent Local Lodge 63 as a delegate.
Since 2003, he’s also been a union benefit fund trustee — on the Northwest Machinists Dental Trust and later on the Western Metals Pension.
Over decades as a union rep, Petroff displayed great recall and a mind for detail in contract bargaining, and could be canny when representing members facing discipline. But he’s reluctant to take credit for any of it, and insists that every win was a team effort, and that the secret to success was the union stewards he cultivated over the years.