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