On Sunday, January 17th, Cort and Cor-tek guitar workers and cultural arts supporters from Korea and the US met with Fender Musical Instruments Corporation at the Hilton Hotel in Anaheim.
A sizable portion of Cort’s production is for Fender. The percentage is not known exactly at this time, but the Cort workers estimated it could be as high as 50% of Cort’s orders. (This page from Fender’s website shows how one can spot if their own Fender guitar is made in Korea (C is for Cort). This page shows how one can tell if their Squier guitar, a brand owned by Fender, has been made by Cort Guitars.)
As we stated in an earlier post, Fender claimed it had no idea of the workers’ situation and stated that it will conduct an investigation. Musicians like Tom Morello and Fender’s own endorser, musician Wayne Kramer, of the band MC5, have spoken to Fender on the Cort worker’s behalf.
The meeting was an opportunity for the workers to present the facts about Cort’s illegal mass dismissal and its movement of its factories to China and Indonesia. It was also a brief time to clearly state their conditions for a fair investigation of Cort by Fender.
For Cort union officer Mr. Bang, as someone who worked at Cort for more than twenty years, one of the key points of struggle, and one of the most tangible, is the company’s refusal to pay worker’s compensation for workers who have been certified as those injured on the job. The Cort and Cor-tek workers brought to the meeting documents officially recognizing approximately thirty workers who were considered victims of industrial accident or injury.
Ultimately, Fender’s PR and legal counsel promised to conduct a fair and independent investigation that would rely on testimony and documents from both sides as well as from third-party sources, and to keep the workers updated on the investigation’s progress. For the Cort workers and their supporters, a fair process would involve consistent representation and participation by the union (and not just a closed dialogue between the companies Cort and Fender).
Fender’s PR and legal counsel asked the workers, “At the end of the process, what do you ultimately want to see as an outcome?” The workers explained, as they have throughout their struggle, that they want Cort to reopen its factories in Korea, that they want to return to work, and to do so with the company’s recognition of their right to collectively bargain with the company.
However, what the workers thought only part and parcel of a fair investigation, that Fender stop new orders with Cort until the investigation was concluded, was not something that Fender promised, although they stated they would look into it. In a sense, the inability to commit to this leaves the bread and butter of Cort’s operations running smoothly.
What we also learned at the end of the meeting was that while Fender has an internal Code of Conduct, it does not require the companies abroad who produce its guitars to abide by it.
While it is not necessarily a surprise that this is the case, this lack of worker safeguards for a process as dangerous and difficult as the mass production of guitars shows a familiar but disturbing double standard; the protections that American workers receive in Fender’s factories on US shores are not extended to the Korean workers who made its guitars for decades, or, for that matter, the Chinese and Indonesian workers making them now. We can only imagine, if Cort company treated their Korean workers so badly for decades, how the Chinese and Indonesian workers are faring now.
See this video for a recurring theme: guitar workers who stay with a company for decades. Meet Abigail Ybarra, who has been with Fender since 1956 (at 6:19 in the video). Why would it be any different for a worker who has been with Cort for decades? Of course they want to keep making guitars.
The video ends with the punchline, what most people assume and yet is not 100% true: “Fender guitars, made in America.”
How could Fender or other American guitar companies not know?
During the NAMM Show, a German manufacturer that had contracted with Cort in the 1980s, came up to us and told us that his company used to work with Cort in the 1980s. As a product manager, he had visited the factory many times a year. When he visited, he was appalled that the workers had to live with such conditions – without the proper masks, without the proper ventilation equipment above the workstations. He remembered the Cort factory as a ‘hell.’ To be clear, the ‘80s were also when many of the American guitar companies that we know began relying on Cort for their budget guitar production.
While this German music industry insider didn’t know what the conditions at Cort were like now, he told us it was hard to believe that companies could claim to not know the working conditions at Cort. He said that any product manager would visit the factory at least 10 times a year to check on production and to ensure quality control.
Perhaps the problem is that the long hours, the lack of workers’ compensation, the forced resignations, the sexual harassment, and other such degrading conditions are not visible to the naked eye nor taking place as an American business partner visits. Just as Jack Westheimer recalled for us that the Cort factories were ‘state of the art’ – when we are talking about the number of face masks a worker gets a week, or whether they are being arbitrarily switched around workstations by managers, these may not part of a standard checklist for quality control.
As the German manufacturer stated, ‘It is different now. Now we have to pay attention to these conditions, the environment, everything. “ I would say, rather, that we should have been paying attention from the beginning.
After all, the motto of Fender is “Make History.” Let it be the first among the legendary guitar giants to live up to its motto and make history by implementing a Code of Conduct that guarantees basic worker protections for all workers, whether they are based on American shores or abroad.
If you are like many- a music lover, a Fender fan, a believer in worker rights- please tell Fender you want to see justice for the Cort workers.