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
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
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
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
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
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
The popular American master narrative of globalization centers on
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
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
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
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,
workers in China, Indonesia, and anywhere where industrialists seek to
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
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
liberalization, labour law, and development: A
Korea-US FTA, and Challenges of the Labor Movement
Meiji Restoration and Modernization
Colonization of Korea and its Effect on Korea's Modernization
of Modernization (information from the Korean embassy)
History of Indonesia
Indonesian Labor and Trade
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
History of Ibanez
History of Japanese Fenders
Ed Roman, some interesting guitar business information
Role of Yamaha in Japan's Music Development by Tatsuya Kobayashi
Western music in Korea
Korean guitar market information