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Cort Guitar Worker Support Event at Nanum Cultural Center K-Town

by imc reader Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010 at 9:47 AM

Famous rock guitarist Tom Morello headlined a small benefit show in Koreatown to raise awareness of Cort guitar's misstreatment of its workers in its Korean plants.  Morello was joined by his partner in the band Street Sweeper Social Club, Boots Riley, as well as local artists Skim, Shin Kawasaki, David Tran, Albert Chiang and Sue Jin Kim.

Cort Guitar Worker S...
cort-morello-riley.jpg, image/jpeg, 600x421

The Situation with Cort

From 1997 to 2007, Korean workers at Cort and Cor-tek, a part of Cort guitars, saw their jobs being outsourced to Indonesia.  With no advanced warning, their factories were closed, and all the workers fired.  This is not only a case of a Korean company firing Korean workers to outsource to another country: Cort's main business is to manufacture guitars for "American" brands.

Cort's main manufacturing focus is on budget-priced guitars under contract for numerous well-known American brands, like Fender, Gibson, Avalon, G&L, and ESP.  They also produce for Ibanez, an originally Spanish company that was acquired by a Japanese company seeking to enter the American market.  Cort also produces its own brand guitars, which have developed a good reputation, as well as  a big-box brand called Parkwood, which is manufactured both in Korea and Indonesia.

Cort was founded in 1973 by Jack Westheimer with Yung H. Park.  Westheimer was a businessman who was involved in importing musical instruments from Japan in the 1960s, when the Japanese economy was rebuilding from the effects of WW2.  Likewise, the trade alliance with Korea was established, and the economy there was rebuilding, and Westhieimer clearly saw opportunities.

The Cort plant formed a union in 1987.  In response, Cort founded Cor-tek, a non-union guitar company the next year.  Only nine years later, in 1997, Cort opened a factory in China.  Over time, Cort and Cor-tek workers were fired and the remaining workers trained their replacements from China and Indonesia.  To try to fight the increasing job insecurity, Cor-tek workers formed a union.

Guitar workers in Korea worked in sweatshop conditions.  According to the Cort-Action website:

At the Cort and Cor-tek factores in Daejon and Incheon, ‘cheap guitar’ translated into a pressure for speed, cutting corners on required safety equipment, harassment and forced overtime. They endured the kind of conditions that were optimal for the guitar- not for them. And thus the Cor-tek factory had no windows. A single dust mask was given for an entire week. They couldn’t go home until production goals were met- but weren’t paid for all the extra hours. After 10 years of work, this ’seniority’ still earned them less than 24 dollars a day.

See the Cort-Action website for more harrowing and revolting details of lost fingers and sexual harrasment, favortism and lies from management.


The larger story, of course, is that this large global, Korean outsourcing company is now offshoring work to its factories in other countries.  American brand loyalty is being used by American companies who moved work to Korean companies that turned around and sent work out to factories operating in the dictatorships of China and Indonesia.

The popular American master narrative of globalization centers on the loss of work to other countries.  The work, itself, is seen as part of the traditions and heritage of the culture.  For example, people tend to think of musical instruments as cultural artifacts, created by craftsmen.  To protect their work, the craftspersons form guilds.  The craft was industrialized and mechanized, depriving the craftspersons of their work as it was transferred to less-skilled assembly line workers.  Lower costs for the product lowered prices and increased sales, which lead to larger profit margins. Industrial workers unionized to demand the fruits of improved productivity.  The de-skilling of the work allowed for expansion and imitation, and eventually, overseas competition emerged, that sold similar products at lower prices.  As a response to competion, American companies established factories overseas, sometimes using the same workers who were competing (and sometimes, simply bought the competition).  There, the story ends.

Reality is not so simple, and not one-sided.  Western music in Asia has a history going back to around 1850, and is intimately tied to the so-called "opening" of trade with the west, as well as different modernization and westernization programs in the different countries.  The pressure for westernization was driven by the spread of international capitalism and European imperialism - for the elites in these countries to contend with globalization of capitalism, it was necessary to compete with it.  (Please read the linked articles below for some historical perspective.)
Uneven Development Mass manufactured musical instruments developed with industrialization and the middle class in America, and prices declined to the point where even working class whites and higher-income African Americans could afford to purchase instruments by the early 20th century.

In Asia, the pattern has not been repeated.  According to a history of Yamaha, it appears that popularity of western musical instruments in Japan started in the 1880s, and only takes off in the 1930s.  In Korea, it's largely a post-Korean-War phenomenon.

Today, the domestic market for instruments appears to be relatively young.  Most product is still manufactured for export, and is not affordable to the workers who make the instruments, despite their relatively low price.  This is exactly the story of Cort, and the workers at Cort who are being denied the fruits of their labor.

Since the late 1990s, manufacturing is being pushed from the limited-democracies of Japan and Korea, to China and Indonesia, where workers ability to affect policy is more limited.  What are the chances that the workers there will be able to afford to purchase a guitar?  If history is any predictor of the future, it will be worse for workers in China and Indonesia than it was for workers in Korea, just as it was worse for workers in Korea than it was for workers in Japan.  And it was worse for workers in Japan than it was for workers in the United States.
No Simple Solutions The American master narrative about trade liberalization, described above, precludes understanding of the spread of neoliberalism as a global project.  Through that limited lens, neolibralism is experienced as a series of conflicts with specific countries: Japan, Mexico, Korea, China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc.  In fact, the neoliberal project is transnational and seeks regional and global liberalization of trade, and the global erosion of labor and environmental laws.

It's necessary to develop international solidarity, not only with the workers at Cort in Korea who were fired, but also workers in China, Indonesia, and anywhere where industrialists seek to move manufacturing.

In order to do this, we need to give up the American master narrative.  The story served us in the past, but impedes us going forward.  It should be easy: the master narrative is so old and tired that the Right wing nationalists have adopted most of it, like a fairy tale that comforts us in our night-time of fear.

A counter-narrative, popular with some sectors of the Left, views neoliberalism as a form of imperialism, centered on the US (and by extending backwards through history, the UK).  Taken to its logical, conclusion, the solution to many problems lies in the a domestic Left fighting the national government to stop being imperialistic.

The Left counter-narrative lacks relevance to a situation like Cort, where the company sells primarily to the United States, operates in Korea, and is now offshoring work to China and Indonesia.  Indonesia was like a client state to the US.  Likewise, so was South Korea.  China is a major trading partner.

The Cort workers are asking for solidarity between consumers and workers, but with this globalized system where the owners, workers, and consumers aren't locked within the same community, it's that much more challenging.  Perhaps the fractals of solidarity were present in the musical event, that was pan-ethnic and pan-Asian, and also multi-racial.


Trade liberalization, labour law, and development: A contextualization

FTA, Korea-US FTA, and Challenges of the Labor Movement

The Meiji Restoration and Modernization

Japan's Colonization of Korea and its Effect on Korea's Modernization

Challenges of Modernization (information from the Korean embassy)


History of Indonesia

Indonesian Labor and Trade

The Earnings Effects of Multilateral Trade Liberalizaton
Trade liberalization  has had little effect on poverty and unemployment, except to increase vollatility.  The authors speculate whether the effect of liberalization has been more macroeconomic, and subjects workers to more volatility from macroeconomic shocks like the economic crises of the late 1990s.

American, Japanese autoworkers forge global solidarity
The UAW and JAW are attempting to work together, some 30 years late.

The Worldwide Class Struggle


Cort timeline

Jack Westheimer

Avalon and outsourcing

History of Ibanez

History of Japanese Fenders

Ed Roman, some interesting guitar business information

Hondo Guitars

The Role of Yamaha in Japan's Music Development by Tatsuya Kobayashi

Western music in Korea

Korean guitar market information

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