E’ville Archive: Thirty years ago – The sudden closing of Judson Steel

Published On August 29, 2016 | By Rob Arias | History & Archive

A 1986 video segment recently surfaced on YouTube of a KGO Channel 7 news segment detailing the sudden closing of Judson Steel thirty years ago. News anchor Van Amburg began the segment by reporting “the end of an era in the City of Emeryville.” Judson was an Emeryville landmark for 104 years and assisted building the Golden Gate Bridge, the original Bay Bridge and the Richmond San Rafael Bridge. The plant was one of the last West Coast steel mills and employed hundreds.

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“They said ‘that’s it. It’s all over’ and started banking their furnaces” noted Amurg in the report detailing the ongoing labor dispute between Judson and the United Steelworkers Union. Amburg, incidentally, anchored the news for KGO-TV for seventeen years but was abruptly fired after this segment and never resurfaced on television. The 86-year-old Amburg is reportedly still alive and lives in El Cerrito as of this 2011 post.

Judson was reportedly the victim of rising labor costs combined with foreign competition and a surge in the cost of power. Some of the employees reportedly worked at the plant for as long as 40 years. “I don’t know what I can do now” noted former employee Wayne Toye in the segment. “At my age, I wouldn’t stand much of a chance of going out and looking for another job”. Many of the employees seemed to be in denial of the plant actually closing for good and considered this a negotiation tactic.

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Shellmound Street used to dead-end here at the Barbary Coast Steel plant (Image: Pandemonia.com).

Judson previously reached a three year agreement with the union after a four-month strike in 1983. Judson’s owners, Peko-Wallsend, reportedly planned on cutting jobs when the contract expired but ended up eliminating all 204 jobs when a compromise could not be reached. According to this newspaper archive, the cost of labor at the time was $12-15/hr. The plant had reportedly been in the red for seven straight years and were now asking for an $.80/hr. employee pay cut. When workers refused, the plant decided to close.

Birmingham Steel, A non-union employer, later acquired the plant and it continued operation for two more years as “Barbary Coast Steel”. In 1991, Barbary moved its production to Seattle and the plant closed for good officially ending the “age of steel” in Emeryville. IKEA bought the land in 1997 and opened their first Northern California store at the site in 2000.

The closure was emblematic of the long decline of manufacturing in our region and the shift of our city into the mixed-use/retail center it has become. Many blame a combination of unions, regulations, automation and globalization policies for the exodus of these middle-class manufacturing jobs that employed many locals and those without advanced degrees.

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Originally called The Judson Manufacturing Company, Judson was founded in 1882 by Egbert Putnam Judson who was an inventor and manufacturer of explosives according to LocalWiki.com. Judson also operated a plant in SF but moved those operations to its Emeryville plant after the 1906 quake. The plant contained a complete bridge and structural steel shop, a machine shop, a foundry and pattern shop and nuts & bolts shops. At its peak of productivity, the plant employed more than 600 men.

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Emeryville was once home to more than a hundred manufacturing plants according to FoundSf.org. Wallace Christie (pictured) whom Christie Avenue was named after, was a manager of Judson Steel and also served as Mayor of the town from the time the city was incorporated in 1896 until his retirement in 1936. The “Rotten City” era that he presided over saw our city population among just a few hundred and Emeryville mostly functioned as a tax haven and friendly government to industry. He was succeeded by Al LaCoste, the father of the notorious Police Chief John Lacoste.

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This foundsf.org archive shows the density of factories that once existed in Emeryville and West Berkeley.

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About The Author

is a third generation Californian and East Bay native who moved to Emeryville in 2003. A new parent in the community, he can often be seen walking his French Bulldog rescue "Fiona" around his Park Avenue District neighborhood, traversing the greenway on his bike or enjoying his favorite Emeryville small businesses. Rob's "day job" is as a creative professional.

13 Responses to E’ville Archive: Thirty years ago – The sudden closing of Judson Steel

  1. Sue Kelly says:

    Hi Rob…good job with all the Emeryville historical tie-ins to our modern, progressive Emeryville!

    • Rob Arias says:

      Thanks Sue. I didn’t write this for this reason but there’s clearly a deja vu feeling to the story. One industry that provided true middle-class jobs gets over-regulated and is pushed out. Emeryville reinvents itself as a retail destination and now you have a “well intentioned” council who clearly is no fan of retail and they attempt to over-regulate THEM. This and the competition from online sales will one day close our retail centers and then we’ll have to reinvent ourselves again. Perhaps we’ll be become a bedroom community with a giant drive-thru Amazon Fulfillment center where Bay Street used to be. Who loses? The workers in the interim I suppose. Our council gives true progressivism a bad name.

      • bettepage says:

        Or maybe the owners are lining their pockets excessively. Buying that second or third house while their workers can’t afford one? But thanks for shilling for the rich who feel ‘over-regulated’. How much did they pay you?

      • Anonymous says:

        Or maybe, retail and restaurants are going out of business left, right, and sideways (they are). Or maybe retail and restaurants are the predominant supplier of entry level jobs (they are). Or maybe almost everyone who is entering the workforce starts in retail and restaurants as their first job (they do) until they quickly move to higher positions (they also do).

        And so maybe, by helping kill all of the suppliers of jobs to the young, the uneducated, and the poor, Emeryville is driving out all of the jobs for everyone one but rich, wealthy tech workers supporting a vision of a white, gentrified, progressive utopia.

        Ever wonder why, despite all the minimum wage increases, we’ve seen homeless like we’ve never seen it before? Increasing the minimum wage too high, too fast is devastating to the poor, the unskilled, and other marginalized communities. They lose their jobs, rents rise to consume the additional wages, and prices rise to pay for the extra costs to business. Tech workers move in. Poor people are driven out.

        But thanks for shilling for inequality and gentrification. How much did Amazon and Uber pay you?

    • Anonymous says:

      The key to being union advocacy: take credit for the raise and leave before the layoffs.

  2. Lisa says:

    I am fascinated by our colorful local history. Thanks for this!

  3. Betsy says:

    Fascinating story. I moved here in 1987 but didn’t have any idea what was going on at that site. Thanks, Rob.

  4. Andre' Carpiaux says:

    I knew well the Judson Steel plan.It I was gutted by the BUDAKAAT city council ever blaming the ” union ” as a dog easy to find a weep to chase around, but one thing is left out that undermined the whole industrial complex in the U.S.A., The Environmentalist ( parasite ) craze poisoning every kind of work except their own which was NOT to do any kind of work but being lip service screwing everyone else occupations. The Judson had bought electric furnace when P.G.& E. put the screw with their electrical rate. The same electric rate that drove out of business a company liquefying gas. Everything became ” decadent ” for those politicians who never had a real job in their life and never will. The working men and women became the ” Blight ” and blight became the war cry of those parasites. Those electric furnace went to China and they manufactured our new Bay Bridge, the S.A.S with the ” broken bolts ) so WE have a signature
    new bridge ” Made in China ” like all the tinsel everywhere those punishing the local labor forces. WE also have the only bridge in the world that is sporting a ” BRASSIERE ” that makes our S.A.S. guy / gal sexy undergarment ( whistle ) at least its made in metric as a consolation.
    We had the intellectuals to do it but WE threw away ( seizure like Nora Davis said ) their tools
    their work site, their shop every blight stuff you could imagine. Get the brand new junk from IKEA

    Andre’

  5. M says:

    While the nighttime scene of molten steel being poured was gorgeous, the dirt in the air from Judson was incredible. It coated every surface in the town, indoors and outdoors, tabletops and lungs, skylights and food.

  6. Cathy Leonard says:

    Thanks for posting the 1986 newscast by our beloved Van Amburg and team. Nice flashback.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I worked there from 78 til the closing. There were a lot of families that worked there that”s how they hired back then. We were not told about closing. I came to work swing and was told if i want anything out of my locker better get it now.Loved working there.

  8. Buddy Hoffman says:

    I was an engineer for Bricmont and Associates, a company that, in 1983-1984, was brought in to improve the efficiency of this steel mill and to reduce the level of pollutants. They had insufficient technology to avoid breaking EPA levels of various pollutants, despite the strong desire to do so ($10,000 EPA fines were common place).

    But it was not high wages that cause Judson, and later Barbary Coast, Steel to fail. As part of the arrangement to build the Bay Bridge in the early 1930′, Judson was granted 50 years of subsidized energy costs. When my company arrived, it was too little, too late. The sudden increased cost of energy was their death knell, not wages.

  9. William Dennehy says:

    My dad, Con Dennehy was an electrician there. He took me a s kid to see the molten steel. I’ll never forget it.

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