Syracuse China to close factory after 137 years

Though Syracuse China also made fine china, these plates marked Old Ivory are representative of the company's widely recognized restaurant ware. Image courtesy TW Conroy LLC and Archive.

Though Syracuse China also made fine china, these plates marked Old Ivory are representative of the company’s widely recognized restaurant ware. Image courtesy TW Conroy LLC and Archive.

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) – To this day, Mark Nicotra carries forward a family tradition, inspecting the bottoms of plates for the “Syracuse China” stamp when he’s out to eat at a restaurant.

“It was a game we played when we traveled. I think everyone in Syracuse could identify with them … it’s given us a great sense of pride,” said Nicotra, the town of Salina supervisor.

After 137 years in business, a slumping economy is forcing the shutdown of Syracuse China’s suburban factory, one of the last in the United States making dinnerware products.

Toledo, Ohio-based Libbey Inc. announced Dec. 9 it would close the struggling Salina factory by March 27, 2009, to cut costs and improve efficiency. Libbey also said it was closing its Mira Loma, Calif., glassware distribution center, which employs about 30 people. Workers and local leaders said insult was added to injury when Libbey said it will continue selling china under the Syracuse China name on products imported from factories in other countries, the very competition that has helped kill dinnerware manufacturing in the United States.

“To me, that’s appalling,” said Ed Kochian, deputy Onondaga County executive. “They bought the brand. It’s not illegal. It just strikes me as a very, very sad twist for all those people who built that company.”

“It’s not only the fact that it’s a job, but it holds the Syracuse name,” said Ed Sabin, who has worked at the plant for 19 years. “With so much manufacturing leaving this town, I always thought that it would be nice, at least, for Syracuse China to stay here.”

Syracuse China was founded in 1871 as the Onondaga Pottery Co. The company first started stamping its earthenware with “Syracuse China” in 1885. But it wasn’t until 1966 that the company officially changed its name to Syracuse China. The company opened the Salina plant in 1921 to manufacture china for commercial sale. In 1970, the company stopped making fine china and closed its Syracuse plant, moving all its operations to Salina on the city’s edge.

At its peak, Syracuse China employed as many as 1,200 workers. In 1972, family ownership ended and the company has since been through a series of corporate owners. Libbey purchased Syracuse China in 1995 from Susquehanna-Pfaltzgraff Co. of York, Pa. In 2006, Libbey said the Salina factory was not profitable and was in serious financial trouble despite the company spending $25 million on modernization. After a five-week strike in 2006, workers agreed to accept a three-year wage freeze.

Jim Gacek, a 17-year employee of Syracuse China and former president of Local 381 of the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics and Allied Workers International Union, said the news Tuesday came as a surprise because management told the union in July that the plant was “back in the black” after a period of losses.

“They were saying we were making money,” Gacek told The Post-Standard of Syracuse. “Not a lot of money, but that they were doing better.”

Syracuse China is just the most recent in a string of one-time locally owned upstate New York tableware companies succumbing to competition from foreign manufacturers.

Last year, Camillus Cutlery closed its village-center factory after 105 years of making knives.

Oneida Ltd. also couldn’t compete with foreign-made goods. It closed its Buffalo China dinnerware factory in 2004 and the Sherrill flatware factory in 2005 and became an importer of products it sells under the Oneida name.

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