The irony and wonder of the trade show is that while its key purpose is to facilitate business, it is also an opportunity when the companies that normally cannot be reached, that are scattered all over the globe, that have shiny public relations machines, all gather in one place. In that space, companies acquire names and faces, and in the quasi-public eye of buyers and sellers of their products, they can be called on to be accountable to basic labor standards. For the Cort and Cor-tek workers, coming to the NAMM show was just such an opportunity.
Many people at NAMM have asked us – What is the reaction of Cort? What about its business partners like Fender?
We haven’t gotten any official response from Cort directed to the Cort and Cor-tek guitar workers during the US delegation. However, there have been moments to meet and hear from Cort in other ways.
Before our taped interview was broadcast last Thursday, Jan. 7th, on KPFK 90.7, Maria Armoudian’s show “The Insighters” (archived show link here), Cort sent a response. In it, they asserted something preposterous that not even the radio host could put on air; that the workers demonstrating against Cort Guitars were not guitar workers, but in fact, professional labor activists.
In their own words,
The majority of the demonstrators are professional labor activists, not former guitar workers.
The Cort and Cor-tek guitar workers are ALSO union members and officers. This does not negate their decades of work at the Cort and Cor-tek factories. For Cort to assert such bold-faced lies to a radio station shows again their sense of impunity and how much they play with the truth.
Cort Guitars also asserted that it was 2 strikes, one in 2005, and one in 2006, that caused it to move factories to China and Indonesia, since these strikes and the demands of the labor union ‘undermined their efficiency.’
However, it is stated in this article in Entrepreneur magazine that, starting in 1992, the company began to look for new production sites BECAUSE of the union.
The company steadily added manufacturing capacity in Korea until 1992. Then the combination of rising costs and difficulties with labor unions prompted Park to search for new production sites.
The workers themselves remember that they were being laid off in batches during this decade, and formed a union to ensure some job security. Again, news media that may have based their article on interviews with Cort employees contradict the claims in Cort’s counter press release to KPFK.
Gene Simmons of KISS at the Cort booth, where he endorsed a custom-built Cort guitar
Another moment to encounter Cort came inside the show, when Cort/Cor-tek hosted a press conference and a photo session for fans of Gene Simmons of the band, KISS. KISS, for anyone who may not know, is a NYC rock band from the 1970s known for their personas and dramatic stage performances (and in shorthand, their makeup). However, Cort/Cor-tek employees in the booth, without any explanation,banned the Hankyoreh 21 reporter, although other press were allowed inside the booth.
Gene Simmons, photo source: E!Online/ Kevin Masur/WireImage.com
Later, two employees of Cort/ Cor-tek came out to ask the reporter to leave the area around the booth entirely, saying that artists were not people to ask questions about Cort’s labor violations.
Barring a reporter from asking questions of their endorser is one thing. But to ask us to leave the area entirely, and indirectly threaten us in the process, saying, “We may ask you nicely now, but you may force us to use different methods later,” directly revealed their willingness to bend the law to get what they wanted, and their lack of openness on the issue.
In the course of arguing that the Hankyoreh reporter needed to leave their booth area, the Cort-tek employee even claimed that sullying the name of Cort guitars would not just look bad for the brand, but also ‘look bad for Korea.’ The Cor-tek employee also tried to win the reporter over with an empathetic appeal – “You see, this is how I make my living. If you ruin the company, then you are taking that away from me. You should understand that I can’t just stand by and watch you do that.”
This is precisely what we are asking Cort Guitars to do- to understand the impact of taking away hundreds of livelihoods.
Within the NAMM show, we also approached Jack Westheimer himself, a co-founder of Cort credited with building the brand and building its OEM relationships in the US. In response to the Hankyoreh reporter’s questions about Cort’s labor violations, he kept telling him that the factory was state-of-the-art, that the floors were so clean that people could eat off of them, that the humidity control was finely tuned, etc. When he was pressed to answer about labor violations which are less visible to the naked eye, he dismissed the Cort Action rally outside, saying it was ‘small’ and also ‘too extreme.’
When Gene Simmons came strolling out of the show and into the public walkway, a Cort/Cor-tek employee actually shoved me out of the way as I tried to approach him, but as if a towering rock god, he agreed to answer one question with a wave of a hand.
I asked,” Do you know about Cort’s labor rights violations?” He didn’t understand at first, but when he realized I was asking about Cort, the company he had agreed to endorse, he resolutely answered, “I am a firm believer in capitalism. If you don’t like a workplace, you can just go to another one.”
Critiques of capitalism aside, what Cort Guitars engages in is not within the rules of the game – Lying to its workers, breaking the labor laws, dodging workers’ compensation cases by asking injured workers to sign resignation papers, and not appearing when called for an investigation by the National Assembly – these go beyond what any workplace should engage in. This is a workplace that is anti-worker. Who can work in such a place?
Simmons, without knowing any of the details and only hearing the words ‘labor dispute,’ also stated, “This has nothing to do with you or me. This is between the workers and the company.”
But is it possible for labor disputes to be resolved in an internal process when the company, like Cort, simply fires its workers and switches its factories to union-free workplaces in China and Indonesia? Everyone so far at NAMM and in LA and in Japan have assured me this is not true. We are all part of the system of guitar production, even if we are just the consumers at the end or the musicians who build the demand for them. How do we allow a workplace, any workplace, to be a mini-fiefdom?
As for Fender…
Before the Cort workers arrived in LA, we sent a letter to the CEO, to the VP of Global Manufacturing at Fender Musical Instruments Corporation as well as to the VP of the Supply Chain. Musicians Tom Morello and Wayne Kramer also spoke to Fender’s public relations to request an explanation.
We requested a meeting during the week between Jan. 11 and the 17th, and Fender public relations and legal counsel have granted us a meeting on the last day, today, Jan. 17th.
Fender stated in its letter to the Cort workers that they didn’t know about the labor law violations of Cort and that it will conduct an appropriate investigation of the matter.
For us, ‘appropriate investigation’ means that it will be fair, independent, and thorough. We would like continuous participation and input from the workers and the union. We would like to be updated on the timely progress of the investigation, and we would like the results to be made public. We hope that Fender takes the testimony of the workers to heart, especially since the Cort company has such a history of dishonesty, both with its business partners and with its workers.