Master Lock is Closing Its Milwaukee Plant. Is Corporate Greed to Blame?

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
May 25 2023 |
Then-President Barack Obama tours Master Lock Company in Milwaukee in February 2012. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said he’s heard “no logical explanation” for the impending closure. The union representing the plant’s workers noted the company had $2 billion in sales last year in one segment alone.

Back in 2012, then-President Barack Obama paid a visit to the Master Lock factory in Milwaukee to celebrate the success of the company in bringing jobs back to the United States.

Now the company is shutting down that same factory — and moving jobs overseas.

The United Autoworkers union (UAW) Region 4, which represents the 330 workers at the plant, broke the news via Facebook with the headline: “MASTER LOCK PLANS TO KILL 330 UAW JOBS IN MILWAUKEE – TELL THEM NO!”

“We are 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,” the UAW posted. “The company informed workers today that their jobs would be outsourced beginning this fall, 102 years after the company was founded, in Milwaukee… Master Lock’s facility, on 32nd & Center in the industrial heart of Milwaukee, is one of the last manufacturing facilities in this storied blue collar city.”

Union members weren’t the only ones upset by the decision to close the plant. Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said he’s “baffled” by the company’s decision, calling it a “slap in the face” to the factory employees.

“Less than a decade ago, Master Lock invited President Barack Obama to this same facility to celebrate the in-shoring of jobs. Now, the company is going in the opposite direction, defying the trend of growing manufacturing jobs in the United States,” Johnson said. “As of this morning, Fortune Brands has not reached out to me, and I have heard no logical explanation for their actions.”

Master Lock may not be talking to the mayor, but the company did issue a statement to at least one local news station, confirming the closure and saying it will transition manufacturing to other North American and global operations, along with external suppliers. While the company was vague about the details, a reporter at Urban Milwaukee reported Master Lock has posted job openings in Mexico, and has operations in China.

“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,” a company spokesperson said.

But the UAW said corporate greed is to blame:

“This latest example is brought to you by Master Lock and parent company Fortune Brands, whose Outdoors and Securities business segment alone had over $2 billion in sales last year. CEO Nicholas Fink enjoys annual compensation of $10 million though his greed won’t tolerate $20 per hour UAW Members in Milwaukee. The average Master Lock employee would have to work 240 years to match Fink’s earnings.”

It’s a sad ending for the Master Lock factory, which began operations back in 1939 and has become a Cream City mainstay. When Obama visited the facility, he praised the company for its commitment to American manufacturing.

“It’s great to be here at Master Lock. Since I’ll eventually be the father of two high school teenagers, I’m in the market for as many locks as I can get my hands on,” he joked. “But I’m actually here because this company has been making the most of a huge opportunity that exists right now to bring jobs and manufacturing back to America.”

Not anymore, which is striking given the massive growth of domestic manufacturing over the past year. And it will be the 330 people working at the facility who will suffer the most.

Mike Bink of UAW Local 469 told FOX6 that the plant is expected to begin ramping down operations by October and close by March. It took employees by surprise, he said.

“As of Tuesday, we were still making plans, fixing issues in the plant, talking about putting on apprenticeships and training programs – so we certainly had no knowledge of this coming,” he said.

Eddie Lofton, one of the facility’s employees, told WISN 12 News that he has worked at the plant for five years, and thought he had many more to go.

“I started off as just a part sorter, but I moved up pretty fast. Opportunities was there. That’s why I thought it was going to be a long-term job, certainly more than five years,” Lofton said. “A lot of people bought cars or homes, you know, building families expecting, you know, longevity. The company’s been there 100 years. And all of a sudden, it’s just gone.”