Master Lock's Milwaukee plant once employed more than 1,000 workers. Now it's closing for good.

·6 min read

For more than 100 years, Master Lock was a key employer on the city's north side and the manufacturer of one of the most recognizable products tied to Milwaukee. On Wednesday, more than 400 workers at the facility were told their jobs were ending and production was moving elsewhere in North America.

The news triggered an angry reaction from local officials and marked the final chapter for the plant, which at one time employed more than 1,000 workers, many of them neighborhood residents.

"This decision is not a reflection of the skills, performance or commitment of the Milwaukee workforce, and it was not made lightly," the company said in a statement. "Rather, this is an opportunity to continue to enhance our supply chain resilience, maximize potential growth of the business and maintain our competitiveness into the future."

The company said the transition would take "an extended period of time and the plant will not close until the end of March 2024, we wanted to provide as much advanced notice as possible to our associates."

The company said it would work with UAW Local 469, the union representing most workers at the facility, to ensure a smooth transition.

"We want to express our deepest gratitude to our entire Milwaukee team and the greater Milwaukee community for their dedication and commitment to the company."

Of the more than 400 positions being cut, 330 are union jobs. The plant produces parts for locks that are assembled in Mexico.

Surprise announcement triggers angry reaction

The announcement took workers and local officials by surprise and triggered an angry reaction from Mayor Cavalier Johnson and County Executive David Crowley.

UAW Region 4 director Brandon Campbell, which represents unions in Wisconsin, said the union is "disgusted, yet again, as another profitable corporation has decided to close the doors of a manufacturing icon in corporate America’s never-ending quest for profit, without any regard for the people amassing their wealth."

Mayor Johnson said he is "enormously disappointed by the impending closure of the Master Lock facility."

"It is a slap in the face to the hard-working Milwaukee employees," Johnson said. "They certainly deserve greater respect and appreciation from their company."

Johnson said the company has not given him a "logical explanation for their actions.”

"About a decade ago, Master Lock invited President Barack Obama to this same facility to celebrate the in-shoring of jobs," Johnson said. "Now, the company is going in the opposite direction, defying the trend of growing manufacturing jobs in the United States."

In 2012, Obama visited the facility to tout job growth.

Crowley said he is "deeply disappointed by Master Lock's decision to shut down its Milwaukee manufacturing plant, especially at a moment in time when other businesses have taken steps to accelerate their presence in Milwaukee."

"This decision impedes our vision to achieve race and health equity in Milwaukee County," Crowley said in a statement. "Losing good-paying, family-sustaining jobs in the heart of Milwaukee only makes it more difficult for individuals to succeed and for neighborhoods that have been historically left behind to thrive.”

State Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said on Facebook the company is "abandoning 330 workers by moving its manufacturing out of Milwaukee next year. Another profitable corporation putting shareholders over the people who made them successful in the first place."

High paying jobs in an economically challenged neighborhood

Mike Bink, machinist and president of UAW Local 469, has worked at the facility for more than 44 years. He called the decision "unfortunate" and said that Master Lock is "an important employer on the north side of Milwaukee."

"We have a lot of high paying jobs here that are going to be lost," Bink said. "Those are opportunities that are few and far between in this area which is unfortunate all by itself."

"I work with good people. I'm so worried that we're not going to be able to take care of them enough on the way out," Bink said. "Most of the benefits that you negotiate in an 'out' package are seniority based. Fully, half of our plant has five years or less of seniority."

Bink wonders if the union can successfully negotiate "a package that takes care of people who don't have 44 years (of experience), that only have three years. What can we do for them?"

"All they wanted was a way to make a living," Bink said. "I'm not beating up on the people I know here at Master Lock, this decision was not made in Milwaukee... it's a business but a business is people."

Bink said the union has not had any meetings with the company to discuss any severance package and expects to do so next week.

Master Lock's long history of providing jobs to Milwaukee residents

At its height in the 1980s and 1990s Master Lock employed 1,300 workers in the Milwaukee factory.

"I got here in 1979 and it still had the feeling of a family owned company," Bink said. "Generations of families have worked here. My dad worked here from 1959 until 1994."

For decades, families depended on the facility for employment. One of those is Becky LeViseur, whose father, John Socha, worked for Master Lock after the closure of Tower Automotive, formally A.O. Smith. He worked at the company until 2014, and passed away that same year.

"It's very sad to me. It's just another instance of a manufacturing plant that is pulling out of our area," said LeViseur. "Every time I see a Master Lock, it makes me smile because I was so appreciative for them giving an old guy a shot."

Master Lock was originally located in the Pabst Brewery

The padlock company was founded in Milwaukee in 1921.

According to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee:

In 1921, founder Harry Soref started the company, which was originally located in the Pabst Brewery before coming to the north side in 1939.

Throughout the mid-twentieth century, the company become one of the main employers in the city. In 1957, Soref died and his family maintained control of the company until 1970. Fortune Brands acquired Master Lock in 1970 and spun it off as a separate company in 2011.

By the mid-1980s, the company had about 1,300 workers at the Milwaukee facility.

In 2011, Fortune Brands moved its home and security business, including Master Lock, to the independent Fortune Brands Home and Security, Inc.

However, while business grew, disagreements increased between executives and their unionized labor force. The United Auto Workers led a 12-week strike in 1980.

In the 1990s, the company started outsourcing production to China and Mexico. In 2003, the company moved its worldwide headquarters to Oak Creek. Only 320 production jobs were left at the Metcalfe Park factory.

In 2021, Master Lock cut 61 jobs from the Milwaukee facility.

An important neighborhood employer

Shaniqua Davis has lived in a house on 32nd Street across from Master Lock for less than a year and was surprised to hear the news of the closing.

"They used to talk about it from a long time ago, back in the day, how people's granddad's (worked there)," Davis said adding in her time in the neighborhood she regularly saw people going to and from work.

Bink said in the past most workers lived "within five miles of here... and lots of people walked to work."

"It was truly a neighborhood company," Bink said.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Master Lock decision to close Milwaukee plant stirs angry reaction