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Local, state leaders call on Master Lock to reverse decision to close Milwaukee plant

Company plans to close Milwaukee manufacturing campus by March 2024

Three people walk in front of the large Master Lock sign outside of the plant. A woman's sign reads "Quit outsourcing our jobs."
Workers hold signs as they march Wednesday, May 31, 2023, outside of the Master Lock plant in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Mike Bink has memorized the exact number of days he’s been employed by Master Lock in Milwaukee — 44 years, three months and 26 days.

Bink planned to retire on his 65th birthday, about four years shy of a half century from his start date on Feb. 5, 1979. But those plans changed when Master Lock announced plans last week to close the manufacturing operation that’s been operating in the city for more than 100 years by March and move production to “other North American and global manufacturing operations.”

He’s one of 400 workers will be without a job when the company leaves.

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“I had a retirement date in mind, and I couldn’t wait to get there,” Bink said. “Now I’m kind of irritated that I won’t get there, that it’ll be sooner and not on my own choosing.”

“I’m not even sure it’s sunk in all the way with me yet,” he added.

On Wednesday, Bink, the president of United Auto Workers Local 469, joined arms with labor leaders and local and state officials in calling on the company to stay in the city during a rally outside the plant.

Several people can be seen on a sidewalk on a sunny day. A sign held by a protester says
Workers march back and forth on a sidewalk with signs Wednesday, May 31, 2023, outside of the Master Lock plant in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, whose own aunt worked at the factory for several years, called the decision a “slap in the face” last week. Speaking at the rally on Wednesday, he urged Fortune Brands Innovations — the owner of Master Lock — to reverse its decision.

“I want this plant open, I want it to stay open,” Johnson said. “They should rethink their decision about closing this plant and displacing the hundreds and hundreds of workers who call this place home, who make it work each and every single day and who have for the better part of a century.”

Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson said she plans to work with state and local officials to fight to keep the plant open.

“We are going to fight to save this plant,” Nicholson said. “We cannot give up. Master Lock cannot close its doors. We must lock ourselves to the needs of our residents and implore Master Lock to reconsider.”

Workers in neon yellow shirts walk in a line. A sign held by one of the protesters says,
Workers march on the sidewalk Wednesday, May 31, 2023, outside of the Master Lock plant in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Fortune Brands Innovations did not respond to a request for an interview for this story. But Master Lock provided a statement last week when announcing the decision.

“This decision is not a reflection of the skills, performance or commitment of the Milwaukee workforce, and it was not made lightly,” the statement said. “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 statement also said Master Locks plans to work with UAW Local 469 to “ensure a smooth transition.” Bink shared that the company has told them they won’t make any layoffs before the end of October. Bink also said the union, which organized the rally Wednesday, hopes to have a meeting with Master Lock and Fortune Brands representatives on Thursday.

“What drives this (closure) isn’t trying to improve a community, isn’t trying to take care of the people who built this company, who are actually responsible for Master Lock’s good name — it’s about making a very small group of people very rich,” Bink said. “That’s unfortunate.”

Quentin Mccurty has been an employee at the company for 15 years. When he heard the news of the decision, he couldn’t believe it.

“I actually looked at my coworker and said, ‘Pinch me … I think I’m dreaming,’” Mccurty said. “Now I have to look at 15 years down the drain.”

He said he’s happy that local and statewide leaders stood in support with the company Wednesday.

“Hopefully this rally and the protesting turns Fortune Brands’ minds around, and they go a different route to keep us here, cause this is what the city needs,” Mccurty said.

A large sign with a black background and white text says
A sign is displayed Wednesday, May 31, 2023, outside of the Master Lock plant in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The loss of manufacturing jobs has impacted Milwaukee and Wisconsin for decades, as many companies moved to the suburbs, taking family-supporting jobs with them.

But Metro Milwaukee’s manufacturing workforce makes up over one-fifth of the state’s manufacturing workforce, accounts for over a quarter of the industry’s real GDP in Wisconsin and houses 41.4 percent of the state’s manufacturing companies, according to a report from the by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

President Barack Obama visits Master Lock in Milwaukee in 2012.
President Barack Obama talks with Jerry Lemon as he visits Master Lock in Milwaukee, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012. Susan Walsh/AP Photo

Master Lock makes padlocks, combination locks, safes and other security-related products.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the company employed 1,300 workers at its Milwaukee factory, according to an article from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. But soon after that, Master Lock began outsourcing its production to China and Mexico. The company also moved its headquarters to Oak Creek, a Milwaukee suburb, in 2003.

Former President Barack Obama toured the Milwaukee plant in 2012, praising the company for actually bringing manufacturing jobs back to America.